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Tim Steller's opinion: Casita boom should be welcome in expensive Tucson
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Tim Steller's opinion: Casita boom should be welcome in expensive Tucson

Backyard guest houses could help to address soaring rents in our formerly affordable city

If you cruise the alleys of midtown Tucson, you’ll see something you don’t see in many American cities.

Some properties have back walls, or fences, then the yard stretches for another 10 to 20 feet of unused land to the alley. The lots are just that big.

After arriving in Tucson in 1997, it took me a long time to get used to the ponderous backyards of Tucson neighborhoods developed in the 1940s to 1960s.

These are the areas that would be ripest for exploitation in Tucson’s potential casita boom. That’s what I’m calling the proposed new city code that would allow property owners to put up a new “accessory dwelling unit” almost anywhere in Tucson.

The proposal is aimed at increasing the stock of more affordable housing, especially for multigenerational families.

The ramifications could be big. As one resident, Michael McCrory, wrote in a July 22 letter to the city planning commission, “This amendment is really a rezoning of all residential property in the city to increase density.”

That makes it a big deal that could affect almost any of us. A planning commission hearing is set for Sept. 15, at which the commission could recommend passage of the proposal to the city council.

Overall, I find the prospect appealing. Guest houses, or casitas, or granny flats — that whole category now known in their bureaucratic acronym as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs — are already common across Tucson, many of them unpermitted but serving their purposes down through the years.

Renters live there, friends and family flop there, or boxes of belongings slowly fill them up. It’s a longstanding local land-use tradition.

City codes allow all residential properties to add on “sleeping quarters.” They’re additional buildings, no more than half the size of the main house, no taller than 12 feet, and offering only a kitchenette, not a full kitchen. But only a portion of properties are allowed to have have full guest houses built on them.

Apparently mine is one of them. When we bought the house years ago, one of the attractions was a fully permitted guest house, with a full bathroom, kitchen and even laundry.

A friend of ours lived there for two years before a family member moved in. By coincidence, we’ve used the place exactly as the city is hoping people will use accessory dwelling units under the new code — as affordable housing and for extended family.

It’s long happened all over town without anyone thinking much about it. But in recent years casitas have become a popular tool for expensive cities to use to incrementally expand the housing stock. Among the cities that allow them: San Jose, San Diego, Austin, Portland and Flagstaff.

Tucson, for so long thought of as a cheap place to live, suddenly isn’t anymore. Rents have surged, powered in part by scarcity. That has driven the median home purchase price up by 21.7% in the last year, an insane rise.

Nobody’s under the illusion that casitas in the city’s backyards are going to solve Tucson’s housing crunch, but they could help.

The current proposal allows anyone with a property 7,000 square feet or less to put up a guest house up to 750 square feet. Properties bigger than 7,000 square feet would be allowed to have a casita up to 1,000 square feet.

Of course, a 1,000 square-foot home is not really a casita — it’s a casa. And that’s one of several legitimate concerns residents of some midtown neighborhoods have brought up about the proposal.

For reference, the fully equipped guest house on my property is 600 square feet.

Another big concern: vacation rentals. Property owners could take advantage of this new city code, intended to expand affordable and multigenerational housing only to put the new guest house on AirBnb.

“There isn’t any guarantee that any ADUs become housing, much less affordable housing,” Barrio Centro resident Joe Audino said at a July 28 city planning commission hearing. “Since we can’t regulate short-term rentals, this could become a preponderance of AirBnbs.”

It’s true — state law, as it stands, bans cities from regulating vacation rentals, other than making them pay local taxes and register with the city. It’s another terrible pre-emption law, in which the state Legislature’s GOP majority decided it knew better how to run Arizona’s cities than their Democratic mayors and councils.

Another concern: The guest-house code could serve as another attraction for the big investors that have been buying Tucson properties, helping drive up prices.

“They’ll become another item in aggregating absentee landlords’ portfolio,” predicted Laura Tabili, a Rincon Heights neighborhood resident.

These are legitimate worries, but we shouldn’t let them block a good idea. After all, even if somebody makes money off of building a casita, it could still be a good thing for our housing stock.

And in other cities that have invited more guest-house construction, they haven’t taken over the cities. Tucson planners put together a chart of the number of ADU permits issued in seven cities over four years. The biggest number, 531, was in Portland in 2018.

More typical was Austin, which issued between 334 and 379 permits during those four years.

During the process of stakeholder and planning commission meetings on the proposal, which began late last year, older participants have tended to be more pessimistic and younger residents more optimistic about the prospect.

Sharayah Jimenez, principal designer for a drafting and design company she formed, called Cuadro, has high hopes for our potential casita boom.

“What I like about it is the flexibility of it. There isn’t necessarily an end user in mind,” she said. “It’s that flexibility that is really needed right now.”

She noted that small projects like guest houses are often too much trouble for big investors.

Among the ways the city is considering making it easier for homeowners to take advantage of the new proposal it to offer free templates for guest house designs.

Daniel Bursuck, the city planner who has been running the ADU project, noted that Stockton, California, offers three pre-approved designs — for a studio, a one-bedroom, and a two-bedroom guest house.

This should be a requirement for Tucson’s program. Also, the city should have an owner-occupancy requirement at least at the beginning of the program, to see how much it’s used. The owner could be required to live either in the main house or the new guest house.

The experience of other cities has shown that this sort of requirement may be too conservative. In Flagstaff, they had to get rid of the owner occupancy requirement to get many people to take advantage.

But with these tweaks, Tucson really needs to try this. The housing crisis here demands we take some risks. And with all the underused land we have in Tucson, this is a pretty small risk that fits into our landscape and traditions.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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