Housing in San Antonio is getting more expensive every year. Last month’s home prices were up about 20% from the previous year. When we opened our appraisal letters this year, we saw huge increases in our property taxes. Rents are also increasing at a rate faster than many households can keep up with, especially as wages aren’t rising nearly as fast. 

While there is no magic bullet, San Antonio has been hard at work implementing a comprehensive set of policies to slow the increase in housing costs. The city’s Strategic Housing Implementation Plan calls for investments to renovate, preserve, and build new affordable housing that is tied into transportation systems, neighborhood hubs and cultural networks. 

The plan calls for us to partner and align policy goals across many sectors and to work together to eliminate structural barriers to affordable housing, like lack of clear legal title to property, or outmoded restrictions on building materials or types that prevent owners from using their homes to meet their own families’ changing needs over the years. 

Sometimes meeting a family’s changing needs looks like building accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, also known as casitas, granny flats or carriage houses. Currently, our city’s development code allows homeowners to build ADUs, but outdated restrictions make it difficult for owners to build them. Removing these barriers should be part of a larger strategy that looks at how San Antonio can grow responsibly.

San Antonio added more residents than any other city in the country last year, and is projected to add a million more by 2050. A San Antonio that can sustain itself without sprawling endlessly into surrounding counties, expanding its carbon footprint, and causing gridlock requires rethinking late 20th-century development patterns and looking at innovative and proven solutions— even those that worked for previous generations of Americans. Along with thinking about growth centers, like Medical Center and Brooks, as opportunities for higher density development, we should consider the role of neighborhoods in building a future San Antonio that is just, sustainable, and affordable. 

Before World War II, our neighborhoods contained a mix of housing stock: small apartment buildings, duplexes, and accessory dwelling units, which meant that households of different income levels and needs could be part of a neighborhood, too. Post-war white flight was enabled by exclusionary, and often racist, subdivision covenants and single-family zoning for entire neighborhoods. Almost every neighborhood in San Antonio built after the 1950s is exclusively single-family and was developed for a particular income band, sorting and separating San Antonians very neatly by how much they earn and often by what they look like. The degree of segregation is apparent when we consider that 90% of residentially zoned housing is single-family only.

One simple thing we can do to build resilience in neighborhoods like we used to have is to make it easier to build modest accessory dwelling units. 

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are small, naturally affordable, and climate-friendly homes tucked discreetly within residential neighborhoods. They’re a great match for smaller households and can be created through basement or garage conversions, additions, or new construction of backyard tiny homes. ADUs can be paired with affordable housing programs to serve low-income families, other vulnerable populations, and first-time homeowners.

In San Antonio, where it’s common for multigenerational families to live together under one roof providing support for each other, ADUs offer a sense of privacy and autonomy while maintaining family cohesion and stability. For homeowners, ADUs can provide a source of income while simultaneously increasing generational wealth in families. For renters, ADUs create new opportunities to live affordably in a neighborhood that might currently be out of their price range, but is ideal for job, family, or transportation access. And for our seniors, ADUs offer a sustainable and affordable option for those who want to age in place in their neighborhoods and with community support – acting as a critical anti-displacement tool. This is particularly true if new ADUs are designed to be highly accessible. 

Our Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing Development & Preservation Subcommittee, as instructed by our Council-adopted Strategic Housing Implementation Plan, has been working on a series of code changes that make sensitive insertions of modest ADUs into neighborhoods a little easier to achieve.

The proposed changes rectify key barriers to ensure the advancement of more equitable, socially cohesive, and culturally vibrant neighborhoods, removing certain requirements but creating others. At present, there is a hard restriction on the number of occupants who can live in an ADU. This unnecessarily limits possibilities for multigenerational households to live on the same property and restricts occupancy levels for renters, even if the property can safely and comfortably support more residents.  

However, there is currently no height limitation for rear ADUs. The proposed amendments cap the height at 25 feet or two stories, providing more uniformity in the design and permitting process and ensuring neighborhood compatibility and visual cohesion while aiding in housing production. In addition, there is ambiguity in how much livable square footage an ADU can have relative to an existing primary structure. The proposed amendments include a provision for an ADU to be “50% of gross floor area of the primary structure in any single-family zoning district,” which ensures compatibility of scale and considers the unique development pattern and characteristics of each property and neighborhood.

While not a cure to the affordable housing crisis, the proposed amendments help ameliorate growing housing pressures. ADUs promote aging in place, provide people with the opportunities to live in neighborhoods that they otherwise could not live in, and help build generational wealth for property owners in a city where property ownership is one of the primary drivers of economic mobility and community stability. Creating additional housing in established, pre-war neighborhoods also limits the need for urban and suburban sprawl, which strains our water resources, decimates natural habitats, and exacerbates vehicular pollution. A resilient, compassionate San Antonio means making every effort possible to provide housing options for all.

Avatar photo

Jim Bailey

Jim Bailey is a senior principal at Alamo Architects where he leads the housing studio. He is an inner-city native, guerrilla planner, and policy wonk who spends his spare time thinking about issues like...

Jordan Ghawi

Jordan Ghawi is an emergency healthcare and disaster response leader with a passion for civic engagement, working to make Texas communities more resilient. He currently serves as the Director of Strategic...