SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most hotly contested yet wonky issues in Salt Lake City government is making its way back into a potential ordinance.
That is, to allow accessory dwelling units — also known as mother-in-law apartments — citywide.
In other words, an accessory dwelling unit is a second living space built next to or attached to an existing home (in the basement, over a garage, or in a separate building) on a single-family property.
Critics worry allowing them could create parking nightmares in neighborhoods, allow uncharacteristic and unsightly designs, lead to disruptive behavior from renters, and lead to code enforcement problems.
"There are a lot of people who simply do not understand what's about to happen here," resident Sheila O'Driscoll told the council at Tuesday night's public hearing, the first of two public hearings planned before council is expected to vote on the ordinance.
O'Driscoll said she's been living on the same corner for 32 years, and "I love my residential neighborhood."
"I'd appreciate it if you would please take a step back, think about the collateral impact that may not be intended but could be negative to … single family home neighborhoods," she said.
But supporters argue allowing the units could create a new type of more affordable housing, give families the freedom to help provide housing options to their children or their aging parents, and help better balance property owner rights.
John Armstrong thanked the City Council for Tuesday night for "not giving up" on the ordinance. He acknowledged the question of why the council would spend so much time on an ordinance that would likely impact very few compared to an affordable housing project that could accommodate thousands.
Armstrong described how his 72-year-old mother of five, who has lived in a Poplar Grove for decades, now "finds herself in a precarious predicament," no longer able to afford to live in the home, but unable to afford to move out without leaving the area. She also wants to stay in the neighborhood close to family, so she'd rather build a detached home on her property and rent out her home for more income.
"It's for this sweet woman and many others who would otherwise fall between the housing policy cracks, who are hard to accommodate when you're trying to plan for the thousands," he said. "It's for these people that you vote yes … It would have a very meaningful impact, even if not a large impact."
Over the past several months, the Salt Lake City Council have had numerous briefings on recommendations from the city's planning and zoning staff, after, despite having the votes to pass an ordinance last year, the council sent it back to staff for more tweaking.
Now, with one more public hearing scheduled on Oct. 16, City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall says she expects a vote on the new ordinance soon — likely before the Thanksgiving break — and perhaps as soon as right after the Oct. 16 public hearing.
"I think (the ordinance) is the most acceptable that we've ever had," Mendenhall told the Deseret News on Tuesday. "And the council is the most agreeable (on the ordinance) it's ever been as a cohesive body."
Mendenhall also credited the city's planning and zoning staff for doing the legwork after years of grappling with it.
"This is a piece of a broad gradient of affordable housing conversations that the city is having, and it's the most granular of all of those because it gets into single properties that already exist," Mendenhall said. "It gives owners the opportunity to create a new stream of income, it allows for people to age in place easier, and it expands density throughout our city."
It's also been a tough process, Mendenhall acknowledged, for those neighbors who are worried about the impact accessory dwelling units could have on their neighborhoods, from parking issues to code enforcement problems.
"We've taken a long time to hear their concerns and I think to try to find the best remedies through the ordinance to those concerns," she said. "Will it be a panacea for all of them? Certainly not. But from other cities that we've been observing and trying to learn from … I feel like we have our eyes wide open about what this will mean in the city."
Currently, Salt Lake City only allows accessory dwelling units to be built within a half mile of a fixed transit station. But the new ordinance would allow them citywide, with some caveats.
Those include requiring a conditional use permit in the Foothill residential district and for single-family residential zoning districts, the only zoning districts that allow detached single-family dwellings.
The ordinance would allow the accessory units in all other residential zoning districts that already allow duplexes, triplexes and multi-family as permitted uses. It would also eliminate a cap of 25 permits per year.
As one of the most controversial changes among council members, the new ordinance would loosen the requirement that the owner listed on the deed must reside on the property.
Instead, the ordinance would still require an owner occupant — but also allow any person who is related by blood, marriage or adoption to qualify as the owner occupant. The ordinance would also allow the owner occupant to be a trustor of a family trust that possesses legal ownership of the property.
That portion of the proposed ordinance caused heartburn for some City Council members during a work session meeting last month, the last meeting where council members made tweaks to the ordinance before putting it up for public comment.
Councilman Charlie Luke, who has been an outspoken opponent, spoke against the provision.
"If I didn't have so many examples of properties in my neighborhood and close to me where parents well-meaningly buy something for their children … those often have been some of the most difficult to enforce because it's done for a family member," he said.
On the other hand, Councilwoman Amy Fowler lamented it was a "little bit restrictive," noting that though some people may not be blood-related, they may still have people in their lives they consider family that could benefit from a mother-in-law apartment.
Fowler then proposed a straw poll to remove the owner occupancy requirement altogether, but it failed.
"Here's some good news for you, Amy," Luke said. "You don't need to worry about it, because none of this is going to be able to be enforced anyway, so the minute we open this up, it's going to be a free-for-all and the city won't be able to enforce it."