Why Accessory Dwelling Units Are the Workforce Housing Challenge’s Low-Hanging Fruit

by Ed Byrne, published February 20, 2018; revised April 12, 2018

In a white hot, geographically confined, density-averse residential market, the margins are so much higher that luxury dwelling units are all the market will deliver. Upfront costs matter, but there are also brain damage, public attacks, financing hurdles, ubiquitous risks and time delays associated with higher density affordable units that greatly exceed those associated with one-off expensive homes.

Market housing is expensive because there is so much demand, so few new units, and more than enough qualified buyers. The fatal flaw with growth limits is that the law of supply and demand cannot be repealed. Boulder’s housing market is red hot for a reason. We can’t pretend it isn’t. If we do nothing, the environmental, economic and societal consequences will worsen inexorably. If we don’t try, we will have only ourselves to blame. What have we got to lose that isn’t already entirely at risk?

Affordable housing is not more expensive than market rate housing, but the margins are lower, the risks are higher, neighborhoods resist them, and “cheaper” looks and lives that way. By the time we’ve made low- and middle-income development traverse our planning gauntlet, there’s no money, desire or inclination left to invest in the “skin” (i.e., appearance) of the structures. People fight them before, but often embrace them after their new neighbors move in.

Even so, there are unselfish reasons people oppose such housing. We need to define what Boulder’s architectural “style” is (compare the differentiated building fronts of the Steelyards development to Pearl West’s street façade), and then provide substantive procedural and financial incentives for delivering charming and durable street frontages.

This will take some time – time we do not have to begin to more effectively address Boulder’s URGENT workforce housing challenge.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) have proven they are an important part of our community’s workforce housing solution; approving more of them soon will immediately help our community even more than their currently limited numbers have to date. Provisions related to ADUs exist right now in the Boulder Revised Code. We need not reinvent them or look elsewhere for guidance. Here’s all we need to do to help ADUs help us:

Without eviscerating the current code, we should lift the following key restrictions:

  1. Permit ADUs in detached structures in the RL-1 and RL-2 zone districts and eliminate the unnecessary distinctions that currently exist between ADUs and “Owner Accessory Units” (OAUs). *
  2. Expand or eliminate geographic area restrictions (currently just 10% within 300’ or 600’) and waiting list rules;
  3. Eliminate the prohibition against building new structures that may become ADUs;
  4. Increase the permitted size of ADUs to 800s.f., or whatever size remains available within the FAR limits of the neighborhood in which the ADU would be located.
  5. Eliminate the two-person ADU occupancy limit, and use the “family, or no more than three unrelated” occupancy limit that applies to our single-family zone districts today; and,
  6. Eliminate the “one off-street parking space” requirement, especially along transit corridors.

*OAUs are allowed in detached structures in the RR, RE and RMX-1 zone districts now. By melding the ADU and OAU provisions together, we’ll end up with one set of rules permitting accessory units to be located within principal structures or accessory structures in all of Boulder’s residential and mixed-use zone districts, while preserving the most important size, setback, and design rules that currently exist.

How hard would this be? How much legal time will the Office of the City Attorney need to spend drafting the revisions? None. I’ve already written the first draft. Write me at edbyrne@smartlanduse.com, and I’ll send you a copy.

2018-04-12T13:27:38+00:00