POSTED: 12/09/2017 BY THE DAILY CAMERA
The council elections this year were notably contentious, with tough community conversations over differing perspectives on growth and on housing. Luckily, as the new council gets settled in, there are some important strategies for addressing our housing needs that people on all sides of the growth debate may be able to agree on. One is changing the current code to make it easier for homeowners to convert extra space to a small apartment or add a small backyard cottage.
The city of Boulder technically allows so-called accessory dwelling units — more commonly known as granny flats and backyard cottages — but it has some of the most restrictive laws in the country. Because of these restrictions, decades after ADUs were first allowed, the city has only 205 permitted ADUs citywide — or less than one half of one percent of our homes.
This is unfortunate, as ADUs are a great way to add housing in a manner that does not change the character of existing neighborhoods, is inherently affordable, and can provide extra income to help homeowners who are struggling with mortgages or property tax increases.
Cities that have lifted restrictions on ADUs have seen many families benefit from the change. Portland, Ore., used to have rules that made it difficult and expensive for a homeowner to add an ADU, and added only about 20 new ones a year. In 2009 they relaxed the rules and got rid of big development for ADU conversions. The number of new ADUs has grown every year since, up to 615 in 2016 (adjusting for size, that would be the equivalent of about 90 in Boulder).
Durango overhauled its rules a couple of years ago — including legalizing unpermitted ADUs that in some cases predated World War II. Denver is now launching an effort to assist homeowners in lower-income neighborhoods in adding ADUs to help them keep their homes as prices and taxes rise.
The experience in other communities has been that ADUs play an important role in providing moderate-priced housing to working people. For example, In Seattle, one of the U.S. leaders in ADUs, rents tend to fall in the $1,200-$1,800 range — well below the average rent for an apartment in Seattle.
These are not “affordable housing” in the sense of being owned by a government agency or nonprofit with deed restrictions on the rents and on the incomes of tenants. Instead, they are affordable housing that is provided by ordinary residents who are trying to make their communities a better place and bring in a little more income to help them afford their own homes. Part of the reason that even small single-family homes are expensive in Boulder is that people can replace them with much bigger homes. ADUs, by contrast, are legally limited in size, so their value is not based on the potential to be replaced by a bigger unit.
When the city surveyed residents as part of the comprehensive plan update, 62 percent of residents supported allowing granny flats and backyard cottages, while only 30 percent opposed. In recognition of all of these benefits and the public support, the city had begun a process to revise the regulations. Many of the ideas that have been proposed are important reforms; all taken together would be a significant step towards making ADUs feasible.
A few pieces of advice for the council as they go forward:
First, the city should stop enforcement against existing ADUs. It makes no sense to throw people out of the homes they are living in, while we are in the process of liberalizing the rules. As long as the ADU is safe, existing units should be grandfathered in.
Second, get rid of off-street parking requirements. The way the parking requirement works, it is impossible to meet on many properties, effectively banning ADUs.
Third, focus on removing obstacles, not creating complex requirements. Figure out how to make converting space to an ADU simple and cheap, not complicated and expensive.
Finally, let’s not draw this out into an endless process. This is really not that complicated an issue. Dozens of other towns and cities have led the way. ADUs alone won’t solve our housing problems, but they could make a significant contribution. Let’s get this done!
(Editor’s note: The Camera welcomes former mayor and county commissioner Will Toor as a community columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)