Plan to allow a few more ‘mother-in-law’ apartments sparks outsized controversy in Salt Lake City Council

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City Council member Stan Penfold listens to residents who live near four new proposed homeless shelters as they share their feelings with the Council and the mayor during the council’s first meeting of the year at the City and County Building in Salt Lake City Tuesday January 3, 2017.

A proposed citywide allowance of mother-in-law apartments — or accessory dwelling units, in planner-speak — has sparked what passes for heated debate as it heads toward likely approval from the ultracollegial Salt Lake City Council.

So agitated was Chairman Stan Penfold earlier this month that he told council members he was “a little offended,” though he pleaded for record keepers to retract the statement with his next breath.

Penfold is among three east-side representatives who found themselves outnumbered when Councilman Derek Kitchen pitched a straw poll to remove geographic boundaries from the pilot program, which would be limited to 25 ADU permits per year.

The legislation now before the council would undo hard-fought battles to restore and preserve unique single-family neighborhoods, Penfold said.

Kitchen, on the other hand, sees a “geographic equity concern” in excluding The Avenues and the east bench from an all-hands-on-deck effort to address Salt Lake City’s growing housing needs.

Local vacancy rates have plunged below 3 percent, and the city expects its population to increase by 30,000 residents over the next dozen years.

But to Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who supported Kitchen’s motion, the now-yearslong debate has been a little too much adu about ADUs.

“Both sides of this conversation are putting a lot of stock in ADUs as the end of single-family neighborhoods,” she said after Penfold had shared his frustrations. “I mean, come on.”

It bears noting that such secondary residences already exist on single-family lots in Salt Lake City: Some were built before they became illegal in 1995, and “a handful” of permits have been issued through a 2013 ordinance that allows them within a half-mile of transit lines, said city spokesman Matthew Rojas.

Although city planners released a five-year housing plan in February that said there should be no ADU boundary, opposition from the Greater Avenues and Yalecrest community councils, among others, had led the council to first consider an ordinance that made ADUs off-limits north of South Temple or east of 1300 East.

Penfold said his sensitivity to a citywide extension stems from District 3 residents’ efforts in the 1970s and ’80s to combat permissive zoning as houses were being split into multiplexes, sometimes by absentee landlords. Many were being demolished.

When he moved to The Avenues in 1981, he said, “Peopled questioned my sanity. ’How could you possibly move into The Avenues? It’s scary. It’s run-down, it’s crime-ridden. That was really the perception.”

Former Salt Lake City Councilwoman and longtime Avenues resident Sydney Fonnesbeck spoke out during an hourlong public hearing Sept. 19, telling council members this was “one of the most important decisions that you’ll make” and that the downzoning achieved by their predecessors was “a gift.”

“We are the envy of almost every city our size and larger in the United States,” she said, “because we are surrounded by stable neighborhoods.”

When a nearby man interrupted after she continued to speak beyond her allowed two minutes, she snapped, “Excuse me, but shut your mouth,” as like-minded residents waved their hands in a silent show of support.

Fonnesbeck concluded: “Please take this seriously. Get your studies, get your reports, and then be honest about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

Kitchen says the downzoning that made ADUs illegal in 1995 came on the heels of two decades of declining populations in Utah’s capital city, and the current trend is “the complete inverse.” The proposed boundary, he said, was arbitrary.

Three ADUs have been constructed in his own Central Ninth neighborhood since the 2013 ordinance took effect, he said, and “I am enamored with them.”

“The best thing we can do right now is prepare our city for what’s to come, and that way we’re not always playing catch-up.”

Other large cities, facing crisis-level housing shortages, have trended toward more liberal ADU policies. Portland issued 615 permits in 2016 alone. In Vancouver, British Columbia, 35 percent of single-family residences have one or more secondary units.

Salt Lake City’s proposal would be a measured step in that direction. A property could include only one ADU, and it’d have to be less than 50 percent the size of the principal dwelling, and shorter than the principal dwelling, and the owner would have to live on-site.

Perhaps most prohibitive: An ADU would need a dedicated off-street parking stall. Some hopeful property owners who’ve provided feedback in an online survey and at public meetings say that’s a nonstarter.

Portland has no such restriction and saw fewer than half as many cars parked on-street as ADU units, according to a 2014 survey of ADU owners. But some Salt Lake City residents — particularly in The Avenues and near the state Capitol — say parking is already scarce at their curbsides.

Council Vice Chairman Charlie Luke has frequently raised concerns about enforcing ADUs. The city already lacks the capacity to adequately enforce housing regulations, he said. Even as a council member, he hasn’t been able to get the city to penalize a serial violator of city renting codes who lives next door to him.

Luke believes a citywide ordinance — even if it is limited to 25 permits per year — will also encourage illegally built ADUs, as well as short-term rentals such as Airbnb units that are, in theory but often not in practice, banned in Salt Lake City.

Besides, opponents say, ADUs are not all that affordable. Studies show that if you exclude units inhabited by an ADU owner’s family or friends at no costs, rates are standard for the market.

Both Penfold and Luke said Salt Lake City’s shortage of affordable housing, specifically, is best resolved through policies that persuade developers to build higher than the five-story, wood-frame mid-rises that are springing up throughout the city.

“We’re missing the forest for the trees,” Penfold said. “We’re so focused on ADUs, but if we want to have a significant impact on affordability and vacancy, ADUs is not the path there.”

But Luke, who handed out a sheet summarizing his constituents’ fears at the council’s last work session, urged them once more to consider a return to the original boundaries.

“If they are as sure that this is going to be a smashing success as they seem to be, then let the east bench and The Avenues come begging to the city to revise the ordinance and to let them in,” he said.

Said Penfold: “If you don’t have people on board — if you’re forcing people into a zone they don’t know anything about and they’re uncomfortable with, you start losing the battles you need to win about density and affordability and moving low-income units into a neighborhood, and that’s going to be a much bigger battle.”

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