City Council unanimously approved 191 amendments to San Antonio’s unified development code Thursday, including controversial changes intended to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units, more commonly known as casitas or granny flats.

The changes will take effect on Jan. 1.

Council rejected another hotly disputed code change that would have expanded the number of groups that the city is required to notify of developments, such as zoning cases, and would have allowed overlapping boundaries of neighborhood associations and organizations.

Instead, Council approved a code change that allows any community organization to opt-in to receive communications from the city.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are secondary, typically smaller residences on a single property. Amid rising property taxesliving expenses and an affordable housing crisis, ADUs are one way for San Antonio area homeowners to supplement their income with rent and provide additional housing.

Reducing barriers to ADU construction was identified as a policy priority in the city’s 2018 affordable housing policy framework. Since mid-2020, the city has issued 70 building permits for ADUs, said Mike Shannon, director of the city’s Development Services Department.

“The work to keep us on track with this strategic Housing Implementation Plan is essential for us to even remotely have hopes of achieving our affordable housing goals as a city,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “We’ve got a lot more work to do as a City Council and as a community. But this is a very important strategic step that we take.”

The new code allows ADUs to have separate utility lines from the primary structure, removes the limit of one bedroom, restricts them to two stories, requires a parking space for larger ADUs and allows them to be built closer to property lines.

Several council members stressed the need to enforce short-term rental and ADU occupancy rules. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) introduced an amendment that would explicitly prohibit non-owner occupied short-term rentals in ADUs, even though city ordinance already requires that properties with ADUs must be owner-occupied.

“I use short-term rentals when I travel,” Sandoval said, but she doesn’t want to see them overtake entire neighborhoods.

That motion failed with support from only three council members: Sandoval, Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) and Councilman John Courage (D9). Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez abstained.

It’s possible to review the ADU code and make further adjustments later, Nirenberg said. “I don’t support changing it right now, I could be convinced given further deliberation.”

The new code does specifically note that ADUs are subject to the current short-term rental ordinance, which most council members agreed could also use a policy review.

The unified development code directly impacts how the city grows, by establishing rules and procedures for land and structure development. Changes to the code can be approved by City Council at any time, but the city goes through a major overhaul every five years. After the pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, the next cycle will begin in 2027.

The amendment process started in 2019 with 234 proposed amendments which were vetted through various boards and commissions for the past year. Ultimately, city staff recommended 191 for approval and just two for denial, related to transitional housing and neighborhood association registration.

Approved changes to the unified development code include minor clarifications. Other changes address stormwater, infill development, urban farms, light pollution, historic preservation administration, the location of gas stations, tree preservation and certain residential building height limits.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...