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Tucson considers making room for more casitas
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Tucson considers making room for more casitas

Calling it an effort to provide more affordable housing, Tucson is considering amending the city code to allow accessory dwelling units, casita-like structures where people can live.

Amending the city’s development code to authorize the dwellings called ADUs for residential use is also part of the city’s push to support multigenerational living options and promote infill development.

The smaller units are add-ons to main residences with their own kitchens and restrooms and are typically under 1,000 square feet. Tucson’s code currently states accessory structures to residences cannot serve as dwelling units.

The council initiated the process of amending city code to allow for the accessory units in November. City staff are in the process of gathering public input and will bring the results to the planning commission in June, hold a public hearing in July and ultimately bring official adoption before mayor and council in September for consideration.

Adding ADUs to the code would allow for their use as living spaces while setting design standards for them. The small dwellings can be a separate structure in a backyard or attached to a residence.

City staff’s currently proposed regulations include putting the maximum size of the units at 1,000 square feet, allowing one ADU per a residential lot and requiring one parking space per ADU.

In addition to providing a less costly housing option, allowing ADU use for living spaces could increase the city’s overall housing supply.

ADUs are a viable way to increase housing options, said Randy Rogers, CEO of Tucson Association of Realtors.

ADUs “are one of many ways that we can start to cut into our deficit in available housing for individuals,” he said. “The best-case scenario for ADUs is that they are enabling a homeowner to possibly stay in their home when maybe it gets more expensive around, or to house a family member.”

Most ADUs are rented to family members or close acquaintances, according to Sharayah Jimenez, a member of Tucson’s Commission on Equitable Housing and Development and principal designer at the design firm Cuadro.

With the option to rent ADUs to ones’ parents or grandparents, the units can also provide more flexible housing options for seniors, allowing them to stay close to family or caregivers as they age.

“It definitely supports multigenerational households; it also supports aging in place. We see a lot of elderly folks wanting to downsize but still stay in their neighborhood, and this housing option supports that,” Jimenez said. “Because of that, this is the only housing type where we actually see people renting for $0 and for extremely reduced rents.”

However, Rogers doesn’t see ADUs driving down the increasing cost of housing in Tucson on a large scale.

“I don’t think, at the heart of things, this is going to have much impact on the overall cost of housing. We’re probably not going to have thousands of these,” he said. “The reality is this is going to be a good thing for the people who have the ability to do it based on city requirements. For those that can do it, it will provide some reduced housing costs.”

While the overall housing market may not see prices drop, Jimenez hopes the city considers implementing incentive programs to provide ADUs to low-income individuals.

“Some communities have created incentive programs where you get some sort of subsidy or some sort of tax incentive for building an ADU with a commitment to help somebody from section eight,” she said. “I’m really interested in trying to steer the city to create a program like that where we can really also have as a goal the creation of mixed income communities.”

Alongside the benefits of ADUs, the city’s public outreach mission has gathered potential downfalls. Public meetings have raised concerns of increasing property taxes with ADUs adding to homes’ assessed values, parking access, enforcement of ADU regulations, ADUs being used for Airbnbs and the possibility of the units turning into student housing.

City Councilmember Steve Kozachik says within the area he represents, including neighborhoods surrounding the University of Arizona, he has seen many absentee developers turning single-family homes into temporary student housing options.

“With so few owner-occupied houses, finding the right tools to assure we’re not just digging that hole any deeper and creating an opening for more mini dorms is a high priority for me,” Kozachik said. “While I totally support the idea of finding ways for people to age in place, or to hire a caregiver who’d live in a small structure on the same parcel as the main residence, we have to do it in a way that threads the needle of not simply opening the door for someone to build added capacity on a property with the intent of marketing it all as student housing.”

Public meetings have also garnered concern about contributing to the heat island effect, which occurs in metropolitan areas where man-made structures reflect more sunlight and create higher temperatures. The current proposed regulations for ADUs include requiring cool roofs, or roofing systems with high solar reflectance.

But the city hopes authorizing ADUs will instead support climate resilience by providing smaller living spaces to promote density in the city instead of urban outgrowth.

“Density is just inherently more sustainable than sprawl; you’re using less public infrastructure per square foot,” said Jimenez of the housing commission. “I really believe that allowing for more density like this ordinance will do is part of our pathway out of our really inefficient development patterns, which has been just sprawl. If we keep continuing at this rate, we won’t have any desert left.”

The Royal family wanted a house that reflected its desert surroundings.

Nicole Ludden

Arizona Daily Star

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Nicole joined the Star in 2021. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at ASU’s Cronkite school in 2020 and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, AC Press and Arizona Press Club.

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