Beth Chardack: Don’t deny local governments in Utah the power to manage development

Accessory dwelling units are not necessarily the same as affordable dwelling units.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of Modal Living's “small but smart” guest houses or Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City on Monday June 24, 2019.

The conversation about Utah’s affordable housing crunch deserves an important clarification, which I hope state lawmakers will take note of before Rep. Raymond Ward’s House Bill 82 strips local municipalities of their ability to best address their own version of the housing crisis.

The acronym ADU can mean either affordable dwelling units or accessory dwelling units. They are often used interchangeably in this conversation, but they are not interchangeable.

An affordable unit addresses the needs of people who spend a higher percentage of their income on housing than is sustainable. Logically, these units are in denser, urban areas near services and transportation. Often these are subsidized or incentivized by government, which is warranted and essential. This is what our Legislature should be focused on as they hear the needs of different local municipalities addressing housing.

On the other hand, an accessory unit is meant to be a separate living space on an existing property to either rent for extra income or for a family member to use. There is nothing that guarantees that an accessory unit must be affordable. These accessory units are traditionally approved by local planning departments on a case-by-case basis, to account for impacts on the existing neighborhood. To repeat, they do not have to be affordable.

What I observe happening, however, is that developers and legislators are using the ADU definitions interchangeably. This creates precedent that can have long-term universal impacts on all new housing developments moving forward. Developers have jumped on the opportunity to include accessory dwelling units in new developments in the name of affordability, which they may not be.

New construction that includes accessory dwelling units by definition is a guise for adding extra density to a project that would otherwise not be allowed. The developers are attempting to erase established zoning standards and overlays of protections for sensitive areas put in place years ago with the proper due diligence by local planning and zoning departments to address this very issue should it come up one day. This day has come.

Just like any problem, there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. Affordable housing is an issue that affects urban areas differently than suburban or rural areas, and it is not in the state’s jurisdiction to interfere with local land use issues. The state’s role is to assist localities with budgets that will boost abilities to implement localized solutions to their own housing crises.

The bigger problem with HB82 is the setting of precedent for other developers in the state to overrule local planning and development laws long in place. This is a dangerous and undesirable can of worms I don’t think anyone will be happy with down the road.

As we move forward, let’s at least be honest about what we are calling affordable dwelling units versus accessory dwelling units. Shame on the Legislature if it interferes with local planning initiatives so that developers like Ivory Homes can manipulate the system to cash in during a crisis, and yet take no responsibility for the affordable part of the ADUs they are claiming.

Sure, developers can and should be part of the solution, and the state can offer incentives to make that happen. What is not OK is enabling the quick opportunistic profit developers are poised to make under HB82.

If the state really wants to help solve the housing crisis, they will allow localities to do the work they are best served to do, without circumventing the local professionals who are clearly dedicated to solving the problem.

Beth Chardack

Beth Chardack, Salt Lake City, is a freelance writer with master’s degrees in urban and regional planning, from George Washington University, and in public administration, from the University of Utah.