San Antonio plans to change rules for secondary suites

Call them what you will – casitas, carriage houses, in-law suites, grandma’s apartments, nanna cabins, alley houses – accessory living units or smaller second homes on a property, carry many names.

And amid rising property taxes, living costs and an affordable housing crisis, secondary suites (ADUs) are a way for San Antonio-area homeowners to supplement their income or provide housing. to family members.

But some of the city’s current development rules can make it difficult for homeowners, especially low-income homeowners, to build.

On Tuesday, the city’s zoning commission will review proposed changes to the city’s Unified Development Code aimed at reducing barriers to building ADUs, which has been identified as a policy priority under the city’s housing policy. 2018 of the city.

But some neighborhood advocates want more time to consider the changes and fear they will largely benefit property investors — not the average resident.

Removing barriers to housing production is also a key part of the city’s 10-year implementation plan, approved last year, which aims to help 95,000 households, at different income levels, afford housing. .

The proposed changes, developed by the Housing Commission’s aptly named “Removing Barriers to Developing and Preserving Affordable Housing” subcommittee, along with city staff, include eliminating the rule that An ADU’s utilities must be connected to the main structure, removal of occupancy and bedroom limits, and relaxed design requirements while allowing for larger units. They would be limited to backyards and capped at two stories. Only ADUs with a floor area greater than 800 square feet would be required to provide parking.

Certain exceptions may apply to these proposed new rules; the Board of Adjustment would continue to hear landowner appeals on a case-by-case basis.

These changes would reduce the cost and complications of building ADUs, Jim Bailey, chair of the Removing Barriers subcommittee and senior principal of Alamo Architects, told the San Antonio report.

“There are a million reasons why it makes sense to do [building ADUs] easier for San Antonians,” Bailey said. “They’re very low impact, they don’t require more infrastructure, they give tenants the opportunity to live in a neighborhood…. they potentially provide income to offset skyrocketing property taxes [and] they offer seniors the opportunity to age in place.

Cynthia Spielman, another subcommittee chair, agrees that ADUs should be easier for residents to build, but she worries that the proposed changes won’t be resident-friendly.

“Overall, there’s kind of a feeling…that this could turn out to be an investor’s dream come true,” said Spielman, who also sits on the steering committee of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, a group of associations and defenders of downtown neighborhoods.

But there is disagreement over how to handle ADU amendments among first-tier members, Spielman said. “Some say it’s just a giveaway for the developers… others say, ‘no, I really want ADUs but I have my doubts.'”

It could be a way for real estate investors to squeeze out as many units and cash in on a property without going through a rezoning process, she said.

Traditionally, ADUs didn’t have multiple bedrooms or two floors, she said. “It becomes a different kind of structure…we’re not looking to build a big house out back, we’re looking to build a little little casita for my mom to live in.”

A secondary suite in the King William district. Credit: Nick Wagner/San Antonio Report

Removing barriers for residents will also remove barriers for developers and investors, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be removed, said Leilah Powell, executive director of LISC San Antonio, a funder that provides advisory services to the city.

“We have to be aware that ADUs make properties more valuable,” Powell said. “We should, from the outset, create 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 bought 46% of all single-family homes in Bexar County, up from just 11% in 2020, according to a recent report from the National Association of Realtors.

ADUs offer a tool to combat displacement by allowing existing homeowners to earn income they currently don’t have, Powell said. It’s not a silver bullet, she warned, “but it’s a real opportunity to achieve multiple goals.”

Spielman acknowledged that some of the changes could help residents, such as 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. needed to build an ADU.

Changing fees, state laws and other regulations like those sought by Spielman and his neighbors is outside of the code-amendment process the subcommittee has been tasked with, Bailey said.

These issues are part of the subcommittee’s broader work plan, he said, with code amendments being the first of many areas for the group to work on. Reducing barriers to building ADUs, he said, was seen as a “low hanging fruit”.

“Now it’s all of a sudden controversial, and it sort of interrupts our other workflow,” Bailey said.

San Antonio goes through an extensive Unified Development Code change 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, city farms, light pollution and transitional housing.

Spielman also believes that public outreach regarding the ADU amendments was not adequate.

“The end goal was [to] take it on the road,” Spielman said of introducing it to neighborhood associations and other groups.

Although there was no road show, the subcommittee held five meetings, open to the public, between November and February, plus one meeting in January specifically devoted to discussing all of the proposed amendments to the UDC, according to the city’s website.

The changes were also reviewed and approved by the Housing Commission and the Planning Commission’s Technical Advisory Committee. An online survey and feedback form elicited 99 responses.

The public can still comment in person at Tuesday’s Zoning Commission meeting or online. The ADU changes will also be publicly reviewed by the Planning Commission at a later date. Both commissions can make recommendations, but city council will ultimately have the final say in October.

In a letter to zoning commissioners in support of the ADU changes, Bailey praised the “inclusive” process that produced them.

“I have worked on many public policy initiatives over the past quarter century. Some were inclusive, some were not,” he wrote. “This one was not only inclusive, but designed specifically for stakeholders to generate the policy themselves, working with other members of the community who might have different policy goals or perspectives to develop a whole consensus-based solutions.”

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