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Slums or affordable housing?

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Lee and Alma Evans, who live on East Fourth Avenue, say they have created a map showing accessory dwelling units, both occupied and unoccupied, stretching from East Second Avenue to East Ninth Avenue, and from First Street to 15th Street. The Evans estimate 80 to 90 percent of the units are illegal.

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

By renting a former carriage house in the alley behind East Fifth Avenue, Wade Nelson said he could afford to live in Durango for 18 years as a freelance writer. But he also remembers feeling like a “second-class citizen” whenever the city was slow to plow the alley after a snowfall.

As more people moved into apartments above garages and alley cottages, “every night was a battle for limited parking,” said Nelson, who moved into a house last fall.

As a professional writer, Nelson can articulate the pros and cons of allowing more accessory dwellings in a sound bite.

“There is a clear need for affordable housing in Durango,” Nelson said. “(Accessory dwelling units) help fulfill that need. If the density of neighborhoods is not managed, then it creates as many problems as it solves.”

After a summer break, an issue that makes people scream will return in time for the Halloween season with the first Durango City Council public hearing scheduled for Oct. 15. There also will be public forums beginning in September for people needing to unload about the proposed guidelines.

Durango would permit and regulate accessory dwellings, or detached mother-in-law apartments that are subordinate to a larger house, for the first time as part of a new land-use development code.

The ADUs would be limited to the city’s historic neighborhoods closest to downtown and along the avenues parallel to north Main Avenue. These are more formally known as Established Neighborhoods I and II by city planners.

Proponents think there are enough regulations to prevent a proliferation of ADUs, such as requiring every new unit to have an off-street parking spot and requiring so much green space that an owner could not build to the lot line, while also providing new opportunities for affordable housing and helping the homeowners to afford their mortgages through rental income.

A group of opponents, Citizens for Healthy Established Neighborhoods, is leery of a City Council that it perceives to be weighted toward real-estate interests. Group members want further restrictions on ADUs, such as requiring the owner to live on-site in either the larger home or the accessory dwelling, and capping the number of ADUs allowed in a neighborhood, similar to how vacation rentals are regulated. This is what cities such as Boulder and Denver do, they said.

They think officials have not paid enough attention to social consequences of allowing accessory dwellings, such as overcrowding, loss of available street parking, loss of privacy and the degradation of historic neighborhoods into slums.

“We don’t feel there has been a fair discussion of the negative impacts,” David McHenry said. “The only protections (the city has) are for the architectural integrity of the neighborhood, not the social aspect of the neighborhood.”

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 52 percent of occupied housing units in Durango are rentals. So opponents don’t understand why the city wants to create more rental opportunities.

“Is the city’s vision to have 70 percent rentals? Is that why they want so many ADUs?” McHenry asked. “It has got to be unhealthy for established neighborhoods.”

To gauge the impact of the proposed changes, Lee and Alma Evans surveyed the city’s original residential neighborhood just east of downtown for existing ADUs and lot sizes large enough (5,000 square feet or more) to accommodate new ADUs. They walked the alleys and streets, researched property-tax data and excluded public housing and condominiums from their findings.

They found 154 ADUs and 321 lots that are 5,000 square feet or more already exist. So the number of ADUs could increase to 475, and as much as 67 percent of the neighborhood’s 712 parcels could have ADUs.

“It’s such a staggering number compared to what (other towns with ADUs allow),” McHenry said.

While not wanting to demean the Evanses’ research, city of Durango senior planner Vicki Vande-grift said their survey did not take certain zoning restrictions into account.

She also doubted the ability to surmise whether a room above a garage is really a rental unit or the owner’s art studio or recreation room.

Vandegrift said it is difficult to predict the potential increase in ADUs because it would mean knowing which current ADUs are legal and which are illegal. They might be legal if they were grandfathered in because of age, or they might qualify under existing rules for detached duplex housing. Otherwise, the city code currently does not address ADUs.

For a detached duplex to be legal, it must be on a lot of 7,500 square feet or more in this neighborhood east of downtown.

The city’s proposed ADU rule would lower the lot size requirement to 5,000 square feet for this neighborhood. There are 203 lots between 5,000 and 7,500 square feet.

But that does not mean there will be 203 new ADUs, Vandegrift said.

In response to opponents of rentals, Councilor Christina Rinderle, a passionate supporter of ADUs, said, “The thing that kills me is that some inherently think rentals are bad.”

“I know so many people, some of whom are nurses, teachers, high-tech, high-income folks, who don’t know what the future holds or prefer to rent for flexibility or recovery from the recession, or don’t have 20 percent down to buy,” Rinderle said in an email.

“I served on the board of the Regional Housing Alliance for years, and affordable housing is not a ‘one-size-fits-all.’ It also means a variety and diversity of housing stock, which contributes to a healthy and vibrant community.”

Opponent Chris Paulson argues that “once you lose the dominance of owner-occupied homes and families, then you lose the neighborhood. You won’t get it back. It’s blight. It’s crime. It’s people coming and going. It’s trashy neighborhoods.”

She does not think more people living closer to downtown will support businesses, either.

“There seems to be this fantasy notion if we add all these people, they’re going to be patronizing these bars and restaurants. (But) the people in low-price housing are not going to be patronizing overpriced restaurants and shops downtown,” Paulson said.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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