ADUs

On Oct. 15, Durango City Council voted unanimously to allow auxiliary dwelling units in three parts of the city. The more contentious question as to whether to let them to proliferate further could arise next year when the city is expected to look at if it should allow them in Animas City and perhaps other neighborhoods.

What became clear throughout the discussion of ADUs is that the underlying issue is enforcement. And that is true both for those in favor of more accessory dwellings as well as for those who are opposed to them. Preventing the proliferation of ADUs of course presumes enforcement, but at the same time, all the arguments in their favor make sense only if they are properly situated and built. Either way, the key is enforcement of adequate rules and standards.

Having approved accessory dwellings in parts of Durango, the city needs now to show that it can manage them.

In large part, that is because a lack of enforcement is how the issue came about. And absent the enforcement of some basic rules, ADUs will continue to be added to the city’s housing stock, too often in a haphazard or substandard fashion.

The council agreed to allow accessory dwellings on lots of at least 7,000 square feet in the avenues west of North Main, on 5,000-square-foot lots in the downtown area east of Main and with no minimum lot size in the part of town south of College Drive. That was not so much a decision as an admission. Such units – also called mother-in-law apartments or granny flats – are already plentiful in those areas. To try to undo that would be an administrative (and probably legal) nightmare.

Allowing them everywhere, however, is not the only alternative. And if that is not to be the case, the city needs to enforce its own rules.

The arguments in favor of accessory dwellings are a mix of social engineering, property rights and housing advocacy. ADUs, it is said, offer affordable housing for students, singles and the elderly while increasing density (which in some circles is presumed good) and helping homeowners cover their mortgage payments.

Those are legitimate points if the question is whether to approve the construction of new units in a particular area. But in what other context would the City Council consider “this only pencils out if I break the law” as a valid argument? And what other kind of housing would be deemed suitable for our parents or grandparents that was not first inspected for safety?

The unspoken fact about existing accessory dwellings is that too many are substandard. Many were carved out of already small homes or remodeled garages. While most are probably fine, it is doubtful anyone knows how many have inadequate plumbing, heating, insulation or owner-installed wiring that has never been inspected. What does the city plan to do about those? Does the city’s approval of accessory dwellings in a given area effectively endorse all pre-existing units regardless of condition?

Officially allowing auxiliary dwelling units in the parts of town where the council approved them was probably inevitable, but only part of what is needed. To fulfill the goals of those who support ADUs, and to allay at least some of the fears of those who do not, the city now needs to focus on enforcement – not only of the rules governing auxiliary dwelling units, but of basic standards of habitability and safety.

With a heightened emphasis on enforcement, the city can make ADUs work, at least in some parts of town. Without it, the council will have worsened a hodgepodge.

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