More Western Cities Approve ADUs to Help Relieve Housing Crisis

Proponents of 'granny flats' say they can alleviate housing shortages and help families keep their homes, but others worry that the programs don't do enough to target low- and middle-income property owners.

July 22, 2021, 10:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

In Tucson, as in many smaller cities across the country, housing costs "have risen by nearly 27% over the last year, due in part to low interest rates and a pandemic-inspired influx of transplants from other states." Jessica Kutz reports that as the percentage of housing-burdened residents continues to rise, local leaders are looking to Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) as a stopgap for displacement. Often called "casitas," backyard cottages or other types of add-on units can increase housing stock and offer more affordable options for renters. 

Like other cities around the country, Tucson recently began the rezoning process to permit and encourage the construction of ADUs. 

"But critics say this approach can backfire. In a series of public meetings held in May over Zoom, Tucson residents shared some common concerns. Many fear that ADUs could be converted into short-term rentals like Airbnbs, or that investors will simply purchase the properties in order to turn an even greater profit. Furthermore, ADUs are often too pricey for low-income homeowners to build." Sharayah Jimenez, a local housing activist, believes "the solution is to prioritize low-to-moderate-income residents (earning approximately $51,000 for a family of four) in the rollout of ADU development."

In Denver, Colorado, an ADU pilot program could soon provide a blueprint for how to reach such residents. Run by the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative, which includes the city and county of Denver and the Denver Housing Authority, the initiative has spent the past year assisting low-to-moderate income residents in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. The program provides between $50,000 to $75,000 in cost savings to homeowners who build ADUs, along with technical assistance and pre-approved designs. In addition, the city is offering $30,000 loans that do not have to be repaid if the owner agrees to rent the unit at an affordable rate for 25 years.

In Tucson, "It’s already happening informally in the Southside, where a majority of work has been done without permits." Jimenez says that "[r]ather than penalize the new additions, she hopes the city can find ways to promote them by educating current homeowners about their options and empowering families to hold onto their lots in the face of rising property taxes."

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