Editorial: ADUs must be allowed citywide if we want to be an equitable city

The idea of using Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to address affordable housing was relatively new in 2013 when former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker first initiated the petition to allow (ADUs) in the city.

Four years later and the city is still struggling to produce an ADU policy that placates both community and city leaders.  While the city is debating boundaries, parking and yearly caps on ADUs, other cities that were early implementers of ADUs are seeing the local housing stock grow to meet the demand, greater neighborhood equity, preservation of historic homes and the expansion of walkable neighborhoods.

ADUs are secondary housing units typically found in single-family neighborhoods and include basement apartments (often called granny flats), tiny homes and above-garage apartments.

Vancouver, British Columbia is the world’s third most expensive housing market and was one of the earliest adopters of ADUs.  As the city struggled to add needed housing it began seeing historic single-family homes be demolished to make way for higher density development.  In 2004, to protect older homes while adding needed housing, the city legalized basement apartments.  In 2009 the city added laneway houses, which are alley-facing cottages between 500 to 1,200 square feet.  According to Mimi Kirk in an article for CityLab, more than one-third of Vancouver’s single-family homes have an ADU.  The average rent for a laneway house is $1,250 a month compared to the city’s $2,020 monthly average rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

In 2015, Austin Texas’ City Council expanded the city’s ADU policy to allow for ADUs on smaller lots.  Like Salt Lake, Austin’s strong economy has led to rising home prices.  According to Jack Murphy in an article for The Architecture Newspaper, in popular areas like East Austin over 34 percent of homeowners have left since 2002 as many became priced-out of their neighborhoods.  Murphy argues that since the 2015 loosening of ADU restrictions, many residents have been able to afford to stay in their neighborhoods thanks to the revenue from ADUs including a councilmember that attributed his ADU to allowing his family to stay in there home.

Locally the debate around ADUs has focused on which neighborhoods should be allowed to build ADUs with most residents from the affluent Avenues and East Bench neighborhoods strongly opposed to ADUs while residents from the more diverse downtown and west side neighborhoods are generally in support of the proposed policy.

But as Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan noted in an article for Co.Design, neighborhood resistance to ADUs mirrors historical residential zoning regulations used to keep affluent white neighborhoods segregated from increasing racial and economic diversity.

This division is reflected in the Salt Lake City Council’s 4 to 3 vote to apply ADUs citywide, the four members that voted in favor represent the city’s most economically and racially diverse neighborhoods, while the three members that are against a citywide ADU policy represent the city’s least diverse and most affluent neighborhoods.

Bryn Davidson, a Vancouver resident and co-owner of Lanefab Design, argued in a piece for CityLab that ADUs are most beneficial when they are allowed citywide with no pilots (Salt Lake is considering a first-year ADU trial run), are flexible in their design standards in relation to existing homes and don’t have restrictive parking standards.

Vancouver and Austin are just a few of the city’s that are touting the benefits of ADUs.  Portland Oregon, another early adopter of ADUs, has one of the country’s most permissive ADU policies.  There an estimated 1,800 ADUs in the city with a 2017 average of one ADU permitted per day.  As seen in Austin, ADUs in Portland have helped longtime residents stay in their gentrifying neighborhoods.

The Salt Lake City Council will debate final amendments to the city’s proposed ADU ordinance on Tuesday during a council work session.  The council will decide on whether or not include a boundary, limit permitted ADUs to 25 per year and establish design standards for new construction ADUs.

Politics aside, the evidence is clear that ADU ordinances are most effective when they are applied citywide and not subjected to yearly caps.  Salt Lake City can’t be a great city if people can’t afford to live here and as a city that celebrates diversity, we shouldn’t be reinforcing outdated zoning ordinances that were designed to preserve economic and racial segregation.

Salt Lake’s housing costs are among the fastest growing in the country and city leaders have spent the past four years debating whether or not ADUs should be distributed equally across our city.  The need for more housing options is now and not just one neighborhood can fix the city’s affordable housing crisis, more housing is needed citywide, including the affluent Avenues and East Bench neighborhoods.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.