Accessory dwelling units — an answer to the affordable housing problem?

Madelene Lee poses for a photo outside of her home in West Jordan on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. She and her husband supplement their income by renting out their basement to a couple and by hosting foreign exchange students.
Madelene Lee poses for a photo outside of her home in West Jordan on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. She and her husband supplement their income by renting out their basement to a couple and by hosting foreign exchange students. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — With housing prices along the Wasatch Front skyrocketing, civic leaders and housing advocates are considering numerous alternatives to mitigate the issue of housing affordability.

Among the choices are what residential planners describe as accessory dwelling units, they can be mother-in-law apartments, coach house, guest cottage, as well as a garage or attic conversion. While they come in a variety of types that can be attached and detached from the main housing space, they may also be a solution to a problem that is putting thousands of individuals and families on the brink of housing instability.

Madelene and Gary Lee have spent the past three decades using the space in their home as an accessory dwelling unit. In fact, the West Jordan couple specifically purchased their current home — which has a finished basement — for two generations of their family to live in, but when that fell through they had no trouble finding someone to live there.

“The minute we moved in, people heard we had a mother-in-law apartment, and it was rented,” she said. Having tenants was a way to help lessen their financial burden as well as something that would allow them to help folks looking for an affordable place to live, they said.

“We have always for the last 30-plus years hosted foreign exchange students, so it wasn’t any different than just having tenants in our home,” she said. Today, they are doing both, hosting exchange students in two spare bedrooms in the main living area and renting an 800-square-foot basement apartment to a young couple.

“In our neighborhood, just in our circle, we have about three or four families that do that,” he said.

“Some of them are related to the landlords and some are just (where) you put an ad out there on KSL classifieds and get somebody to come and rent,” she said.

“(Over the years) we’ve had people living there for two to three years or we’ve had people that only lived there six months, it depends on their situation in life,” she said. “We’ve had some young married couples who are starting out in life, we’ve had families, we’ve had single women and we’ve had single men.”

Data shows 36 Utah cities saw median rent costs climb, while just three cities — South Jordan, White City and Vernal — saw decreases.

Madeline and Dylan Saltzman live in the Lee’s basement unit. She said they chose the space because it would help them save money while her husband finishes up his undergraduate studies. They are both in their 20s.

“We just needed something a lot more within our budget and we ended up finding this place, and they included all the utilities within our monthly cost,” she explained. “It just fit well within the budget we had and what we have right now.”

The couple had looked at various rental options but realized they could save 10% to 20% by living in a mother-in-law apartment rather than a traditional rental unit. Madeline Saltzman said other family members have done the same kind of thing when they were first starting out and with housing costs rising, more young people are looking for similar budget-friendly alternatives.

Recent data from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute showed the median housing costs for renters in Utah rose from $944 to $1,037. Ten of 11 counties with changes in median rent showed increases, with the biggest increases in Morgan County, rising from $833 to $1,182, along with Wasatch County jumping from $1,147 up to $1,364.

The Gardner Institute study cited a recent survey from the University of California at Berkeley, which indicated that accessory dwelling units typically rent for an average of 58% below market value, making them “an essential tool for delivering affordable units to the market,” said the author, James Woods, Ivory-Boyer senior fellow at the Gardner Institute.

Nationwide, cities across the country are adopting or adapting ordinances to include more accessory dwelling units in residential areas. In Utah, the state’s capital city has zoned all of its residential districts to allow the units.

“If you have a single-family home, you can build an (accessory dwelling unit) on your property if you get a conditional use permit,” Salt Lake City planning director Nick Norris said. “In 2018, the City Council adopted an updated ordinance that expanded it to any single-family home regardless of zoning district or where it is located in the city.”

He said the dwindling housing supply and decreasing affordability were the main reasons for the ordinance change.

“It was one of the first attempts for the city to remove zoning barriers to building more housing,” Norris said. In creating the accessory dwelling unit rules, the City Council tried to make a law that would allow for more flexibility for homeowners.

“In our ordinance, we made it all the same. So whether somebody wants to put one in their basement or addition in their attic or over a garage in the backyard there, from our perspective they’re all considered the same way in zoning,” he said. “Obviously, they have different rules if you’re building it in a detached garage versus your basement, our code doesn’t differentiate other than that.”

In February 2019, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 34, which introduced new requirements for municipalities that now force counties to plan for moderate-income housing as part of the general plans for each community with an additional reporting requirement to the state on its process.

“Cities need to select three of 23 approved strategies for supporting moderate-income housing,” said Maridene Alexander, communications director for the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District. “Failure to comply would cause a city to lose state funds for roads and infrastructure.”

Moderate-income housing is defined as units that are affordable for people making between 50% and 80% of the area’s median household income.

“Certain types of residences are generally affordable for moderate-income households,” she said. “We can think of moderate-income housing as house-scale buildings with multiple units; they resemble the form, design and scale of single-family houses.”

Common examples include duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes or other multiplex housing, she said.

Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District communities include Brighton, Copperton Metro Township, Emigration Canyon Metro Township, Kearns Metro Township, Magna Metro Township and White City Metro Township.

“Kearns similarly had to choose at least three strategies to support moderate-income housing in the community, via state code,” according to the service district’s long-range planner, Kayla Mauldin. “Kearns residents were so zealous about finding solutions for moderate-income housing that they chose to adopt more than three strategies in their moderate income housing plan.”

Following the adoption of the plan, the district adopted an accessory dwelling unit ordinance in August.

“Legalizing accessory dwelling units is only the first step. (Service district) staff recognizes that many regulatory and financial burdens can stand in the way of residents pursuing development of these units, she said. “In the next few years, we will be working with communities to ensure that they capitalize fully on the benefits of (accessory dwelling units).”

Similar efforts are underway in all of the other county jurisdictions as well, Alexander said.

“The Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District is working with each of its member communities to draft and pass an accessory dwelling unit ordinance, she said.

Jasen Lee



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