Call them what you will — casitas, carriage houses, in-law suites, granny flats, nanna cabanas, laneway houses — accessory dwelling units, or secondary, smaller residences on a property, go by many names.
And amid rising property taxes, living expenses and an affordable housing crisis, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are one way for San Antonio area homeowners to supplement income or provide housing for family members.
But some of the city’s current development rules can make it difficult for property owners, especially lower-income homeowners, to build them.
On Tuesday, the city’s Zoning Commission will review proposed changes to the city’s unified development code aimed at reducing barriers to ADU construction, which was identified as a policy priority in the city’s 2018 housing policy framework.
But some neighborhood advocates want more time to review the changes and are concerned that they will largely benefit real estate investors — not the average resident.
Removing barriers to housing production is also a key component of the city’s 10-year implementation plan, approved last year, which aims to help 95,000 households, at various income levels, afford housing.
The proposed changes, developed by the aptly named “Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing Development and Preservation” subcommittee of the Housing Commission, along with city staff, include eliminating the rule that an ADU’s utilities must be connected to the primary structure, removing occupancy and bedroom limitations and loosening design requirements while allowing for larger units. They would be limited to backyards, and be capped at two stories. Only ADUs with floor areas larger than 800 square feet would be required to provide parking.
Some exceptions may apply to these proposed new rules; the Board of Adjustment would continue to hear appeals from property owners on a case-by-case basis.
These changes would reduce the cost and complications of ADU construction, Jim Bailey, a chair of the Removing Barriers subcommittee and a senior principal at Alamo Architects, told the San Antonio Report.
“There’s a million reasons why it makes sense to make [building ADUs] easier for San Antonians,” Bailey said. “They’re super low-impact, they don’t require any more infrastructure, they give renters the ability to live in a neighborhood. …. They provide, potentially, income to offset skyrocketing property taxes [and] they provide seniors an opportunity to age in place.”
Cynthia Spielman, a former chair of the subcommittee, agrees that ADUs should be easier for residents to build — but she worries the proposed changes aren’t geared toward residents.
“Overall, there is a kind of feeling … that this could turn out to be an investor’s dream,” said Spielman, who also sits on the steering committee for the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, a group of inner-city neighborhood associations and advocates.
But there is disagreement among Tier One members about how to handle ADU amendments, Spielman said. “Some say this is only a developer giveaway. … Others say, ‘no, I really want ADUs but I have some misgivings.'”
It could be a way for real estate investors to squeeze as many units and profit out of a property without going through a re-zoning process, she said.
Traditionally, ADUs haven’t had multiple bedrooms or two stories, she said. “It’s becoming a different kind of structure … we’re not looking to build some big house in the back, we’re looking to build a small little casita that my mother can live in.”
Removing barriers for residents will inherently remove barriers for developers and investors as well, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be removed, said Leilah Powell, executive director of LISC San Antonio, a housing funder that provides consultant services for the city.
“We should be aware that ADUs make properties more valuable,” Powell said. “We should be, from the beginning, creating policies to help protect existing low- and moderate-income homeowners from property speculation — but that’s not a force that will be created by ADUs, that force exists now.”
Last year, investors purchased 46% of all single-family homes in Bexar County, compared to just 11% in 2020, according to a recent report by the National Association of Realtors.
ADUs offer a tool to fight displacement by allowing existing property owners to gain income that they don’t currently have, Powell said. It’s not a silver bullet, she warned, “but it is a real opportunity to accomplish multiple goals.”
Spielman acknowledged that some of the changes could help residents, such as the relaxed design standards, but she said residents in her Beacon Hill neighborhood are more interested in lower fees or fee waivers for the many permits necessary to build an ADU.
Changing fees, state laws and other regulations like those sought by Spielman and her neighbors is outside the code amendment process the subcommittee was tasked with, Bailey said.
Those issues are part of the broader work plan of the subcommittee, he said, with code amendments the first of many focus areas for the group. Reducing barriers to ADU construction, he said, was considered “low-hanging fruit.”
“Now it’s all of a sudden controversial, and it’s sort of interrupting our other workflow,” Bailey said.
San Antonio undergoes a broad unified development code amendment process every five years, but the 2020 effort was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The process resumed last year and the most recent proposed changes touch on a wide range of issues, including ADUs, flood prevention, urban farms, light pollution and transitional housing.
Spielman also believes the public outreach regarding the ADU amendments was not adequate.
“The end goal was [to] take it on the road,” Spielman said to present to neighborhood associations and other groups.
While there was no road show, the subcommittee did host five meetings, open to the public, between November and February, plus one meeting in January specifically dedicated to discussion of all the proposed UDC amendments, according to the city’s website.
The amendments were also reviewed and approved by the Housing Commission and the Planning Commission’s Technical Advisory Committee. A survey and online feedback form elicited 99 responses.
The public can still comment in person at Tuesday’s Zoning Commission meeting or online. The ADU amendments will also be considered publicly by the Planning Commission at a later date. Both commissions can make recommendations, but ultimately City Council will have the final say in October.
In a letter to zoning commissioners in support of the ADU amendments, Bailey praised the “inclusive” process that produced them.
“I have worked on a lot of public policy initiatives over the last quarter century. Some were inclusive, some not,” he wrote. “This one was not just inclusive but designed specifically for stakeholders to generate the policy themselves, working with others in the community who might have different policy goals or perspectives to develop a consensus-based solution set.”