The city of Durango has designated different parts of the city as “existing neighborhoods.” Labeled EN-1, EN-2 and so forth, the idea is to recognize that, over time, different parts of town have developed their own individual character, style, look and feel.
That should be central to the City Council’s consideration this evening of so-called accessory-dwelling units. There is no reason to deny different neighborhoods their individual qualities with a one-size-fits-all rule. What works well in one neighborhood may be wholly unwelcome in another.
Also termed mother-in-law flats, accessory-dwelling units are typically small apartments added on to, or adjacent to, existing homes. They can be converted garages, apartments above a garage or a part of the main house.
In some parts of town, particularly in the residential areas just east of downtown, they are common. In other neighborhoods, however, they are relatively rare.
Accessory-dwelling units provide affordable housing for people – typically individuals or couples – who cannot or do not want to pay for a larger home. They can be students, an elderly relative or just someone who chooses not to have a bigger home.
From the property owner’s perspective, ADUs can provide additional income or other benefits. An aging homeowner, for example, could let out the apartment over the garage to a college student who might then pay part of the rent by helping out with the more physical chores.
But with that comes another side. Adding an accessory-dwelling unit also adds at least one resident, a pet or two, a couple of bikes, one or two cars and all the other trappings of modern life. Allowing them can double the density of a neighborhood.
In parts of town, that process has been going on for so long that it is, for all practical purposes, a done deal. That fact, however, is not an argument for encouraging more accessory-dwelling units in other neighborhoods where they are nonexistent or uncommon.
On the contrary, it is a reason for the city to focus first on ensuring that existing units meet basic standards of safety and habitability. The proliferation of ADUs in older neighborhoods has occurred over decades, largely without any formal approval. A great many were created in a fashion that does not meet city-code requirements in almost any way. The city should address that before asking other neighborhoods to accept greater density.
The city was right to recognize that Durango’s neighborhoods are not alike and that their residents like it that way. It should continue that approach with accessory-dwelling units.