COMMENTARY: What's the Future for Affordable Housing in Lyons?
By Amy Reinholds
In the affordable housing discussions since the flood, I have been following the various words and actions about accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs, mother-in-law apartments, or carriage houses, allowed on single family residential lots
in the town of Lyons. I paid attention to the changes made in the past two years, with the stated intention by both the elected Board of Trustees, and the appointed Planning and Community Development Commission (PCDC), that the trade-off of allowing additional homes on single family lots to share utility connections with the main house would help provide some lower-cost (although market-rate) long-term rentals in town.
I’ve watched this discussion over three different sitting boards, members of the PCDC coming and going, and three different town planners working on this issue.
In this context, I need the Town of Lyons advisory boards and decision makers to understand that I have serious concerns about compliance and enforcement issues for ADUs. First, bringing existing ADUs into compliance, something that was discussed in early 2016, was a big reason that I supported waiving additional utility connection fees to allow ADUs. Lyons Fire Protection District and Boulder County Sheriff officials had been asking for several years to know which addresses in Lyons had additional dwelling units in case of emergency. Also, enforcement of the requirement that ADUs can only be rented to long-term tenants – and not used for short-term vacation rentals – was another reason I supported the change. I knew that the rents wouldn’t be permanently affordable, and would go up with the rising rental market, but I wanted to see more rentals available for long-term tenants, who struggle to find places to live in Lyons.
Now, I hear statements at PCDC meetings that homeowners are disregarding the process to apply for conditional use reviews, or trying to bypass the process, and this is very concerning. I hear people talking about adding short-term vacation rentals in ADUs, which is not one of the allowed uses. I know that an enforcement officer has been hired, but I haven’t been able to find out what the plan is for bringing existing, non-conforming ADUs into compliance.
Neighborhoods are facing a future where there could be twice as many homes on a street if every homeowner builds an ADU, but homeowners bought their single-family residential (R-1) properties in Lyons with the reasonable expectation that the permitted uses for the zoning would be stable. The trade-off of neighborhoods dealing with the changed use that allows ADUs is that there might be more beneficial options for aging family members (true mother-in-law apartments), for caregivers, or for lower-cost rentals for local employees or grown children. But forcing neighborhoods to deal with this change without enforcement just means that new property owners who ignore the rules and the neighborhood, character might rent out both homes as short-term vacation rentals, treating the neighborhood as a profit generator, and not a community where people live.
Following through on the plan for compliance and enforcing the ADU ordinance are ethical issues, to respect other homeowners in Lyons, including long-time, multi-generational residents of our town.
In June of 2017, the PCDC drafted a statement to lobby that an enforcement officer be hired. “The PCDC has spent many volunteer hours in recent months drafting proposed regulations relating to important matters in our community, including accessory dwelling units and short term vacation rentals. Assisting the PCDC in its efforts were paid Town staff and outside professionals (planners and attorneys). The PCDC believes that in order for its efforts, and those of the Board of Trustees in adopting final versions of ordinances, to best achieve their intended effects – which are to benefit the town and its citizens – it is necessary for the Town to put in place a reasonable enforcement procedure. At a minimum, that should include a Code Enforcement Officer position.”
It also added “Fairness would also be promoted by funding such a position, so that those who do make an effort to comply with Code requirements are not undercut by others who do not comply. At hearings, we have heard multiple comments from members of the public who have questioned what good regulations do if those regulations are not enforced.”
Public safety issues for renters are also an important aspect to affordable housing and fair housing. In summer of 2016, the Lyons Human Services and Aging Commission reported a goal to the Board of Trustees that it supports affordable housing, safe accessory dwelling units, and safety for all renters in town, protections for tenants and landlords, and education that encourages safe, healthy, and fair rentals.
ADUs are small apartments in either the existing house, a garage, or a separate outbuilding. The original Town of Lyons ADU ordinance, established in 2013 after the flood, allowed ADUs to be permitted on single-family residential lots, but no homeowners in Lyons applied to participate in the program for those three years. With the goal of encouraging more lower-cost, market-rate rentals in town for employees of Lyons businesses, seniors, and others who need affordable housing, the Lyons Board of Trustees directed the PCDC in early 2016 to work with the Lyons Utilities and Engineering Board to look for approaches that could help encourage ADUs.
At the end of 2016, the PCDC and the Board of Trustees voted to change Town code, removing the additional utility connection fees for “detached” ADUs in separate buildings on single-family residential lots in town (saving homeowners $20,000-$40,000 in construction costs). Attached ADUs within the same structure as the main house don’t require conditional reviews but do require permits. You can read the ADU ordinance at www.townoflyons.com/566/Accessory-Dwelling-Units.
In 2016, Town staff knew of 21 ADUs in Lyons, none of them legally allowed structures, because they are on low-density residential lots in town, which only allow one single-family home. Some current owners of homes with ADUs that were built without permits might not know their dwelling units are non-compliant, and the separate buildings have been used that way for years.
I know that the Town of Lyons staff and decision makers, elected officials, and advisory boards have a lot going on, but now is the time to move forward on bringing these existing, non-compliant ADUs into compliance with the policy. (On a related issue, I’m also waiting for the follow-up information from the short-term vacation rental community meeting back in March, where many homeowners in residential areas had questions about how to follow the Town of Lyons short-term vacation rental ordinance. The residential community needs this information. I haven’t decided whether or not to rent space in my house as a short-term vacation rental, but I need accurate information.)
So far, all that the Town of Lyons has focused on is new construction of ADUs. In the 12 months between May 2017 and May 2018, conditional use reviews were completed and approved for four new detached ADUs under construction in Lyons.
The “affordability” provided by ADUs is tricky to measure. I do think that if more Lyons residents provide legal, compliant ADUs, there can be more rental housing stock in Lyons (but only if Lyons continues to prohibit using ADUs for short-term vacation rentals). ADUs are a helpful attempt to add more rentals in Lyons, but not the magic solution that fixes all our affordable housing issues. Without a way to require that rent or sales prices will be affordable in the future, all the work to provide market-rate rents that lower-income renters can afford is lost as soon as landlords need to raise the rent or the original homeowners decide to sell.
The Town of Lyons does have some guiding documents that list ADUs as a tool for providing more affordable housing. Housing Strategy 1.1.1 in the 2010 Lyons Comprehensive Plan is “Review and revise Lyons’ Land Use Code as necessary to promote: mixed-use buildings such as live/work units near downtown, accessory dwelling units such as mother-in-law apartments and caretaker residences, and a variety of lot sizes and types of homes in all residential districts.” Also, Housing goal 1.3.1 in the Lyons Recovery Action Plan (from 2014) includes housing that is affordable based on size or square footage. Additionally, an outgoing board passed an Affordable Housing Resolution in April 2016 with a list of possible housing policies and incentives that future boards can use to accomplish a goal of 10 percent affordable housing – including tap fee reductions and working with increased density.
However, does waiving tap fees for ADUs or allowing increased density in single-family zones really enable housing that remains affordable? In contrast, the reductions in tap fees for Habitat for Humanity homes, and the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning for those three Habitat for Humanity duplexes on Park Street do guarantee permanently affordable housing for people who make 80 percent of the area median income or less. There is a difference between using higher density tools for permanent (deed-restricted) affordable housing and higher density tools for market-rate housing. If a town isn't careful with so-called “affordable” incentives for market-rate housing, property owners who focus mainly on making profits, not building community, will benefit from those incentives.
This column is a weekly commentary (opinion column) in the Lyons Recorder about affordable housing after the September 2013 flood disaster in Lyons. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about this column, please contact me directly at areinholds@ hotmail.com. For a history of post-flood efforts for affordable housing in Lyons, you can read previous columns from both Lyons-area newspapers posted on my blog at lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com.