Could more granny flats and backyard cottages be a solution to Salt Lake City’s housing shortage?

Opening another line of attack on the affordable housing crisis, Salt Lake City plans to scrap current regulations for new secondary housing units in favor of a more streamlined design and permitting process.

State law already makes ADUs a legal use in single-family homes, but a series of reforms underway in Utah’s capital would lower the barriers for property owners looking to add freestanding dwellings like backyard cottages and granny flats.

Under the changes, which have been under review at City Hall for nearly a year, add-on homes would be allowed to be built automatically, rather than requiring a public hearing before the city’s planning commission and months of delays. Where ADUs are allowed, the proposed regulation, which will air publicly for the first time in early February, would also greatly expand.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of Modal Living’s “small but smart” freestanding residential units (ADUs) on display at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City in 2019.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall and City Council members advocate for more ADUs as changes take shape, and highlight side housing as a valuable way to encourage cheaper housing and add critical diversity to the city’s depleted housing stock.

But the idea of ​​breaking down barriers and allowing new housing units in more neighborhoods isn’t as straightforward as it might seem, especially given concerns from local residents.

Major disagreements are already emerging among council members over the relaxed per-unit parking requirements and the mandate that new homes be owner-occupied and barred from short-term rental use.

Councilor Chris Wharton even described himself as an “evangelist” for using ADUs as a tool to address the current housing crisis, but warned of potential parking crunches in more populated neighborhoods like the Avenues, Marmalade and Guadalupe without changes to the proposed regulation.

“I can’t support it,” Wharton recently told colleagues, “if it doesn’t have more consideration for those areas.”

“No real reason” for the current city approach

(Salt Lake City planning) Additional housing units would be permitted in a much larger area of ​​Salt Lake City under a proposed ordinance scheduled for a public hearing before the City Council on February 7, 2023.

The city relaxed its zoning to allow ADUs for the first time in late 2018, but applications under this conditional use process have been particularly overwhelming, averaging 25 to 32 permit applications per year.

Town planning director Nick Norris says city hall approval typically takes three to six months, and processing costs are a barrier. None of the ADU’s applications in the past four years have been denied, and it is rare for plans to change significantly as a result of a city review.

“There’s really no real reason for a conditional usage process,” Norris said. “There simply weren’t any adverse impacts identified that weren’t accounted for by the standards in our code.”

Planning commission members tabled the latest revision of the ordinance last February, he noted, after years of watching their agendas fill with ADU motions.

So the newly proposed rules would result in annexes being able to be used on six types of residential lots previously intended, including lots scattered throughout the outskirts of town and single-family homes with larger lots in Sugar House, Central City, the Avenues, Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

Additions would also be permitted in non-residential and commercial areas that are not used for production. This includes properties in the city center, those near local transport stations and properties on which semi-detached houses or larger multi-family houses are already permitted.

The new approach would also be more permissive about the size, height and mass of remote ADUs. It would facilitate the necessary setbacks from adjacent courtyards and would include provisions intended to enable nearby alleys with pedestrian walkways and outdoor lighting.

ADUs can be bigger, taller and in more places

In residential areas, the design rules state that an ADU could be 17 feet tall, or up to 24 feet with additional setbacks, but a unit’s height would no longer be limited by the height of the primary residence.

ADUs could be as large as 1,000 square feet, although that limit can slide up to 1,200 square feet on residential lots that span 12,000 square feet and those that are in non-residential zones. Planning commissioners proposed increasing the maximum ADU size in September from 720 square feet to 1,000 square feet – hoping, they said, to make building family-sized units more viable.

But councilor Dan Dugan, whose district includes many East Bank neighborhoods, said he wasn’t in favor of allowing ADUs that large, while fellow councilor Alejandro Puy, who represents the Glendale, Poplar Grove and Fairpark areas on the West Side, disagreed that “had no qualms with it.” to go this size or higher”.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Two homes at The Pines in Midvale as seen in December 2021. The small Ivory Homes development includes prefabricated accessory residential units (ADUs) in each of the homes.

Dugan also expressed concern about the relaxation of off-street parking rules in some older neighborhoods, where homes are often built on smaller streets and lack driveways and garages, making them vulnerable to bottlenecks when parking is difficult.

“We cause more problems than good,” Dugan said, “by not requiring off-street parking.”

While the proposed regulation requires one off-street parking space per ADU, it makes many exceptions even when on-street parking is available in front of the property or when it is within a quarter mile or half mile of a transit stop from a designated bike lane.

Other council members, meanwhile, feared some of the park concessions did not go far enough. “Parking stresses a lot of neighbors, I understand that,” said Puy, “but I think we have to be brave.”

Will the city keep an ADU review?

Even more fundamental parts of the proposed ADU rules are also being discussed – and this is before owners and the public have weighed in, with a first hearing now scheduled for February 7th.

Darin Mano, new council chairman this year, opposes requirements that ADUs be manned by the property owner if the units are built in residential areas. (This does not apply to ADUs in commercial areas.)

The Salt Lake City Council. Top row, from left: Ana Valdemoros; Amy Fowler; and Alejandro Puy. Middle: Darin Mano. Bottom row, from left: Chris Wharton; Dan Dugan; and Victoria Petro-Eschler.

“It’s a pretty significant impediment to building these buildings,” Mano told the council, calling it “the biggest obstacle to helping our housing stock.” . . . This means you either can never move or if you do you have to sell the property.”

Puy agreed but said his greater concern was that a large number of ADUs, which would be allowed under a new regulation, would be converted to short-term rentals on online sites such as Airbnb. Other parts of the city ordinance prohibit short-term rentals, but state law leaves Utah cities relatively few powers to enforce such bans — and the capital has hundreds of them.

“We don’t have the tools to enforce our laws right now and I’m going to be afraid to open that door,” Puy said, “because without them, it’s an incentive to transform the city into a ‘short term rental hub’. “

Wharton called lifting the ownership rule “just a non-starter” and said it would only exacerbate problems with absentee landlords “who are unresponsive to residents as they continue to collect higher rents while providing fewer services and less upkeep.”

Mano responded that with the rest of the council against repealing self-use, he would not hold up the ordinance because of his own opposition to that part.

Wharton, supported by colleague Amy Fowler, said the city may want to maintain some sort of review for each ADU application, although Norris, the city planning director, said it would likely be “a morale killer” for the planning commission.

Residents who were reluctant to welcome ADUs four years ago were reassured at the time, Wharton said, by the idea that conditional use hearings would address their concerns. “We need to express that part as well,” Wharton said, “and the fact that public and neighborhood support for ADUs is critical to their success in Salt Lake City.”

But he too said his concerns weren’t worth drawing a “line” against approving the proposed regulation as a whole. “I just don’t want to lose people and the support of ADUs,” Wharton said, “because of what we’re doing.” Could more granny flats and backyard cottages be a solution to Salt Lake City’s housing shortage?

Justin Scaccy

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