San Antonio is in a growing housing crisis. The City of San Antonio’s Strategic Housing Implementation Plan (SHIP) has identified that 95,000 residents in Bexar County do not have housing that meets their current needs or budget and calls for the production or preservation of over 28,000 affordable homes over the next 10 years.

It would be a mistake if all of these new homes were developed by the same slate of builders currently developing single-family homes on greenfield sites out past Loop 1604 and massive rental apartment complexes in the inner city. In order to keep pace, we need to be thinking creatively about generating a greater variety of housing types, diversity of housing locations, and expanding our definition of who we consider a housing developer.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), small housing units built within, attached to or on the same property of a single-family home (otherwise known as casitas, mother-in-law suites, or granny flats) are a unique strategy for housing development because they empower everyday people to engage in the production and preservation of housing. Unlike typical, market-rate housing development, which is driven by developers focused on maximizing investor profits with little concern for community needs, the decision for a family to build an ADU is often made on a micro-scale in response to specific household goals. 

When a homeowner builds an ADU on their property, they are creating a new home unit that can be used by a family member, friend or someone in their community while simultaneously building equity in their property and a potential stream of passive income. ADU tenancies are flexible and can shift over time. Homeowners may decide to build them to provide housing for a child who is establishing themselves in adulthood, a grandparent who wants to age in place in an intergenerational household, or a renter who can provide supplemental passive income to the homeowner. 

Built within existing neighborhood infrastructure, ADUs gently increase density with residents that can contribute to the local economy, support public transit and take advantage of other community resources. Their small size expands housing options for single-person households, which is the fastest growing housing need nationwide. And homeowners that build ADUs essentially become small-scale landlords who often build personal relationships with their tenants. At scale, these types of nimble housing options can help a neighborhood create a safety net to help resist the forces of gentrification and displacement by providing opportunities for neighbors to support one another in their time of need. 

However, for all of the advantages of ADUs, there are significant barriers to developing them at scale. Building a new structure on your property is a complicated and risky process, and by their nature, homeowners are typically inexperienced developers. The City of San Antonio and its financial, philanthropic and community partners are going to need really strong policy, financing, incentives and accessible programs to support homeowners through the process. 

The first step to establishing ADUs as a housing strategy is to remove regulatory barriers. While technically legal, our zoning code discourages the construction of ADUs. Currently, San Antonio has rules about architectural style and detailing that can make ADUs more expensive to build. There are maximum square footage requirements based on the size of the primary structure, which stops owners of older, smaller homes from building an ADU of a viable size. Setback and parking regulations can reduce the flexibility of where an ADU can be placed on a lot. And restrictions on electric meters can make renting your ADU more difficult.  

The proposed UDC amendments that are going to City Council on Nov. 3 are a well-thought-out and effective slate of changes that make ADUs a viable option for more households. Code changes will have the result of making ADU development cheaper, easier, less risky and more accessible to San Antonio homeowners. Considering the urgent need for housing affordability, I encourage everyone to reach out to their councilperson to learn more about and express their support for the UDC amendments proposed for ADUs. 

If the amendments pass and ADUs become easier to build, we need to collectively turn our attention to making sure that low- and moderate-income homeowners have the resources and support to build ADUs on their property. Otherwise, ADU development will be limited to affluent folks who have the financial resources and access to professional expertise required for development.

A recent study done by the UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation looked at newly built ADUs in the state of California. They found that homeowners are much more likely to be affluent (70% of ADU owners have a household income over $100,000 compared to the state average household income, of $40,000) and more likely to be non-Hispanic white (only 14% of ADU owners identify as Latino compared to the state average of 29%). If we don’t proactively address equitable access, this trend is bound to repeat itself in San Antonio.

We need comprehensive programs and incentives to ensure ADUs are accessible to everyone. I recently published a report, ADUs as Affordable Housing: Case Studies from around the Country, that explores five programs tailored to support low- and moderate-income homeowners in developing ADUs on their property. Through this research, I have learned that it is possible to facilitate equitable and financially self-sustaining models of ADU development for all types of homeowners and renters. Each program addresses each of the following components in a unique and thoughtful way: community engagement, one-on-one homeowner support, budgeting and cost estimating, access to financial tools and/or incentives, design expertise, construction administration support, landlord training and property management assistance.  

These programs are new and take a lot of focused and dedicated collaboration to build, but they are increasingly successful at making ADUs accessible to more people. There is no reason we can’t build something similar in San Antonio. If we can help homeowners by providing them with the right support, incentives and financial tools, we can create opportunities for San Antonio households to invest in the production of housing, create long-lasting generational wealth and create more household stability, one family at a time. 

Seema Kairam, RA is an associate and design lead in Able City’s San Antonio office. She is passionate about designing a built environment that improves the quality of life and creates access to opportunity...