More necessity than “accessory” 

Colorado Springs has a housing crisis on its hands.

It’s the lack of affordable housing — now hitting the boiling point — priced appropriately for families who, although they work as hard as any of us, may not earn enough to afford a costly apartment.

It’s the city’s ever-expanding eastern edge, which creeps closer and closer to Falcon as developers opt to build outward, rather than look to infill.

And it’s manifested in a homeless population that has grown so vast we now have ordinances determining where they may or may not sit or sleep.

Our housing needs are far from met. So we find it baffling that there’s any debate over the pending accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, ordinance. (See feature story on p. 16.)

ADUs are second, subordinate residences built on the same lot as a traditional single-family home. Think of the classic mother-in-law cottage in the backyard or the college student’s apartment over the garage. Not some hotel chain or multi-unit apartment complex: a carriage house.

City Council is debating a zoning change that would loosen restrictions on ADUs in residential areas, partially in response to two of the issues causing our housing crisis (namely, the lack of affordable housing and the need to combat sprawl through infill). But the initiative has some residents up in arms.

The biggest concern, notably voiced by a pair of distinguished Colorado College professors whose campus lies immediately south of the historic Old North End neighborhood, is ADUs could drastically change the appearance and character of such residential, single-family-zoned communities.

Except that they won’t. Because it turns out the 13-page draft proposal has a lot of safeguards built in. Such as: Units that are attached to the main home must have “a connection or access” to the primary structure. Meaning, no townhome or condo lookalikes. 

The ordinance also stipulates that the owner must live on-site for at least half of the year (with some exceptions for active-duty military, sale of the property, work-induced relocation, divorce, illness or death). We mention this because, if the owner is at the property at least 50 percent of the time, it will drastically reduce the risk of the ADU becoming a party house — be that from a long-term lessee or short-term renter via sites like Airbnb and VRBO. 

What about the increased traffic argument? The ordinance covers that too, mandating that each ADU have at least one off-street spot reserved, plus however many the primary home requires. And yes, adding a couple of ADUs per block could potentially increase traffic by a few cars per day — a small price to pay if they increase affordable housing options and reduce sprawl. 

And if a homeowners association doesn’t like the idea of ADUs, it can vote to opt out of the ordinance. So there’s still autonomy for those neighborhoods.

Look, we get it. There’s a natural fear of anything that could possibly change the nature of your community. You live there for a reason. But does that negate all the potential good that could follow?

A garage apartment could provide an affordable first home for a straight-out-of-school nurse; or that mother-in-law cottage a roof over the heads of a young police officer and family. And if a homeowner invests in an ADU for short-term rentals, that’s allowing for entrepreneurship that can be a meaningful passive income for an individual or family (not to mention another sales tax generator for the city and state). Plus, the Springs enacted a short-term rental ordinance last year to monitor growth in that industry, ensuring oversight. 

Building up, rather than out, negates the long-term economic and environmental repercussions inherent in local developers’ pursuit of less-expensive greenfield development (aka: urban sprawl).

Let’s loosen the ties and see what ADUs can do.

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