As the city starts enforcing new rules for accessory dwelling units in 2016 and weighing whether to allow them in new neighborhoods, it raises questions about whether housing options in Durango will improve.
On Tuesday, the Durango City Council will take up these issues and direct staff on how to handle illegal accessory dwelling units discovered after registration closes Dec. 31
Some argue the small rental units offer necessary affordable housing, but critics say the city has not taken enough action to address substandard ADUs that present a safety hazard.
For Max Hutcheson, the rental income from having an additional unit made it possible for him to buy his house.
He was one of the first to go through the registration process, and he was happy to legalize his unit because of the value it adds to his property.
“Being a real estate professional, it was something I should really be in front of,” he said.
The most time-consuming part of the process for him was proving to the city that his ADU existed before 1989. This is an important cutoff date because owners of units built after 1989 must pay thousands of dollars to legalize their unit.
He looked for utility records to date the unit, but ultimately, the city accepted testimony from his neighbors as the most compelling evidence of the age of his home.
City Councilor Christina Rinderle, a longtime ADU supporter, would like to make it legal to build ADUs in many parts of Durango because of experiences like Hutcheson’s.
“ADUs help to increase a city’s supply of affordable housing and enhance the social stability and mix of neighborhoods with little or no negative impact on the physical character of the neighborhood,” she wrote in an email. “They effectively improve the affordability of housing for both homeowners and renters at all stages in their lives.”
But to resident Alma Evans and others, the city policy so far has not addressed the problem of unsafe ADUs, even where they have been regulated in East Animas City; established neighborhood one, the area east of East Third Avenue and north of First Street; and established neighborhood 2, the area along Main Avenue from about 16th Street to about 32nd Street.
In 2013, Evans set out to map all the ADUs in EN-1 in 2013 because she felt it was important to know how many units existed before allowing more.
“As a resident and homeowner in EN-1, I took it upon myself to do what the city claimed could not be done,” she said.
But despite the months of meetings on ADUs and the registration process that followed, substandard housing will persist because owners do not have to have their units inspected before they are legalized, Evans said.
Property owners are required to sign an affidavit attesting to the age and safety of the unit, said city planner Scott Shine.
Instead of implementing an “amnesty policy,” Evans would like to see a code that protects renters from unsafe living conditions that is proactively enforced.
“A habitability code would go a long way to help reduce the substandard housing,” she said.
However, the city is likely a few years away from introducing a habitability code that would be applied to rental properties, said Greg Hoch, director of community development.
There are many projects the city must finish first, and some of them the council will take up Tuesday including establishing the new fees for ADUs in 2016, how to address apartment buildings in historic neighborhoods, ways to encourage affordable housing and plans to improve north Main.
If ADUs are discovered after Dec. 31, the staff is proposing that the owners of units older than 1989 pay $3,080 to legalize these units. For units built after 1989, the fee would be $7,339, according to city documents.
To find illegal ADUs in 2016, city staff will likely look for illegal units on the ground, in addition to responding to reports, Hoch said.