Cities on the Wasatch Front are cutting red tape to allow more houses in backyards

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Amidst a worsening housing crisis in Utah, cities along the Wasatch Front are rushing to cut back on regulatory hurdles so that homeowners can participate in a unique solution: small, affordable rental properties called Accessory Dwelling Units. 

“It’s a better way to get affordable housing, and ADUs blend in better with the community than a big apartment complex,” said Johnathan Hitzhusen, CEO of Backyard Office Utah, a company that builds backyard home offices.  “ADUs help answer the question about how we grow without changing the landscape and feel of our city.” 

In 2021, the Utah Legislature blocked cities and towns from banning ADUs that are added inside homes in the state. That change led to an increase in the number of new housing units built within existing homes, but it didn’t change the often onerous restrictions cities have on standalone ADUs that are built either above garages or as their own structures.

Over half of the cities along the Wasatch Front now have an ordinance allowing for detached ADUs, and many of those municipalities are continuously working to update their codes to make the option available to more homeowners. South Salt Lake, Riverton, South Ogden, Murray, and several others have recently created external ADU ordinances or updated their ADU codes.Brooks Gibbs, an ADU contractor, says that there’s been “tremendous growth” over the past several years in terms of both the ADU market and community acceptance. 

“More people are becoming aware that they can do this,” Gibbs said. “Discussions about the housing crisis in Utah are top of mind for almost everyone.” 

Salt Lake City instituted some of the most lenient ADU rules in the state–doing away with a requirement for homeowners to get permission from the Planning Commission before building the small home, and allowing ADUs up to 1,000 square feet regardless of the size of the primary structure. Most Homeowners adding ADUs also don’t need to add off-street parking spaces under the updated ordinance. Since the changes were approved in April 2023, the city has seen a rush of permit requests to build the small homes, Building Salt Lake found

“It makes sense for a larger city to have something like that,” South Salt Lake city planner Eliza Ungricht said, noting that the more liberal rules can expedite the process. South Salt Lake passed an ADU ordinance in February that requires the units be built on a minimum 6,000-square-foot-lot, allow only one additional car, and house long-term renters.

“There aren’t as many units coming online as an apartment building, but it’s a great addition to our neighborhood to get smaller units in there,” said Ungricht, who noted that there have been about 5-6 detached ADU applications since February. 

“Those that have already written code are amending it about every 16-24 months,” Gibbs said. 

Because Millcreek’s 2021 external ADU ordinance  received pushback from residents who were worried ADUs would “change the neighborhood character,” the city made the ordinance fairly restrictive, Millcreek city planner Sean Murray said.

The city’s code only allowed ADUs that were up to 50% of the footprint of the main house on the property–with a maximum size of 850 square feet. But Murray said that restriction made ADUs for smaller homes infeasible–so Millcreek has only received a handful of ADU applications a year. 

Millcreek is currently revamping its code to allow ADUs that are up to 100% of the footprint of the main home–with a maximum size of 1,000 square feet.

“We don’t want to open the floodgates,” Murray said. “We are trying to go piece by piece and slowly loosen the belt so we still have quality ADUs.” 

On Tuesday, the Salt Lake County Council approved an ordinance change that lowers the ADU lot requirement from 12,000 square feet to 7,000 square feet, allows the small homes to be up to 20 feet tall, and reduces other setbacks. 

There’s a lot of ambiguity surrounding the shift toward ADUs, Hitzhusen said. Municipalities are dealing with parking, privacy, and how water and impact fees work–but don’t want to make the process too complicated.

“These cities that are allowing ADUs are wanting to encourage them,” Hitzhusen said. “But there are growing pains while cities open their minds to ADUs.”

Building Salt Lake is adding more coverage from submarkets along the Wasatch Front. If you’d like to see more coverage like this, please consider supporting our mission by becoming a Member today.

Email Sam Hawkins

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect the correct name of Sean Murray.