SLC residents, elected leaders split on new rules for tiny homes

11 February, 2023

Salt Lake City’s latest stab at encouraging more residents to build add-on dwellings to help ease a housing crisis is pulling into sharper focus.

The City Council got an earful from the public Tuesday on new proposals for expanding where and how smaller accessory homes such as backyard cottages and granny flats can be constructed, and for cutting red tape to make the process easier.

The draft changes on accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are now tentatively set for final approval Feb. 21 — with much consensus building still to come.

“I just want to put that out there for the public that we are still very much discussing,” council Chair Darin Mano said, “and still trying to see where we land.”

The proposed overhaul comes as Utah’s capital faces dire shortages of homes of all kinds, a gap made worse by pandemic-induced demand and recent growth spurts. In addition, the city’s existing rules on ADUs haven’t yielded as many new dwellings as folks at City Hall had hoped.

Council members and Mayor Erin Mendenhall have made clear they see removing barriers and streamlining the path for more tiny homes in a wider range of neighborhoods and commercial areas as a critical step.

They also seem to agree on wiping away the city’s current rule that the planning commission must review every ADU before it gets built. That would make these units automatically permitted as a land use in residential areas, most commercial zones and places that already allow a mix of uses — although homeowners and businesses still would need building permits.

But council members are hashing out other differences on the new ADU ordinance, which has been more than a year in the making.

Their disputes of late center on how big and tall the units can be, exceptions to a one-per-unit off-street parking requirement and whether homeowners must guarantee they will live on-site to build an ADU.

Parking rules are a big sticking point

A straw poll Tuesday found them almost evenly split on allowing ADUs to be up to 1,000 square feet, with some saying that is too big for many neighborhoods and others asserting it is essential so that new ADUs can accommodate multiple bedrooms more suitable for housing families.

Concerns over parking have the council similarly fractured.

That side of the debate reflects the difficulty of crafting a single set of rules that will fit older and denser neighborhoods, where homes often lack driveways, and other areas where available on-street parking may be more plentiful, such as Central City, around Liberty Park, in Sugar House and on the west side.

Council member Dan Dugan, whose district spans swaths of the east bench, said he wants to keep a requirement that ADUs include an off-street parking stall — even when they are close to mass transit and bike paths.. Colleague Chris Wharton, who represents neighborhoods in the Avenues, Guadalupe and Marmalade, and Amy Fowler, whose district covers much of Sugar House, said they’re tilting the same way.

Before discouraging cars, in effect, with more limited on-street parking, Dugan said, “we want to make sure we have a robust public transportation system across the city — and we don’t. We’re not there yet.”

Others, including council member Ana Valdemoros, whose district spans downtown, said they had less patience for the idea of shaping the ordinance around the needs of automobile owners over bringing in more desperately needed living units.

Council member Victoria Petro, representing parts of the west side, noted that data indicates most of the city’s homeowners who are interested and able to build ADUs live around Liberty Park, where parking is less likely to be an issue.

“I do not need a dedicated parking spot,” Petro said. “On-street parking is fine for ADUs.”

Should owners be required to live on-site?

Deep worries persist among council members and the public alike that without an owner-occupancy requirement, large numbers of new ADUs might be deployed as short-term rentals listed on sites such as Airbnb and Vrbo, without yielding much benefit to locals in need of affordable homes.

“I am nervous,” said west-side council member Alejandro Puy, “because I don’t want all these ADUs being used by many out-of-state companies buying them and removing them from our housing.”

Wharton and others said ensuring that owners live in the primary dwelling — or the ADU — would make them more responsive to neighborhood concerns and discourage absentee landlords. On the other hand, Mano and several members of the public said they fear the restriction will discourage large numbers of homeowners from building ADUs at all.

Leaders of several advocacy groups, including Turner Bitton with an organization called SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors, said that eliminating the rule has greatly boosted ADU construction in many California cities.

Eric Valchuis, a consultant and researcher who has studied the effects and financing of ADUs, warned the requirement also threatened to make renters more vulnerable to being displaced when the homeowner moves.

He noted that a separate city study, dubbed “Thriving in Place,” has found that large numbers of renters are already being squeezed out by rising rents and a lack of affordable homes, particularly lower-income families and people of color.

Potentially making that worse with owner occupancy restrictions, Valchuis said, “seems kind of crazy to me.”

East-sider Koby Elias called the rule “an enormous challenge to the practical reality of building an ADU. What if you move? What if you have a family? Do you have to evict a tenant?”