Steve Pomerance: Time for city to involve residents in ADU decisions

The debate around allowing more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in Boulder neighborhoods has ignored a number of fundamental issues, and so has unnecessarily turned into a pitched battle.

First, the objectives are not clear. City staff cherry-picked from the endless list of comprehensive plan goals to target having a “variety of housing types.” Some council members want ADUs to be permanently affordable, in spite of the difficulties created by state law‘s prohibition on rent control. Others argue that ADUs that rent at market rate will help keep people in their homes in the face of skyrocketing property taxes. (Boulder Valley School District and county commissioners could address this by matching tax revenue growth to inflation rather than property value increases.) And then there are the undercurrents — more people should have the “right” to live in single-family neighborhoods, Boulder is mainly “rich, white, and privileged,” Boulder should be a big, dense city, etc.

What is unacknowledged is that excessive numbers of ADUs will lead to the tragedy of the commons. One person moving into a new ADU may have gotten what he/she wanted and can assert that their one additional ADU doesn‘t make much impact. But as more people move in and pressure for even more ADUs, duplexes, etc., the neighborhood will become less and less attractive, until the damage is done and everyone loses.

Second, city staff have not helped this situation, because their work have been biased toward more, bigger, and easier-to-do ADUs without serious regard for negative effects and neighborhood differences.

In fact, neighborhoods are being treated as if they were just a collection of fungible housing units in an economic market that the city can manipulate for some “community purpose.” But this ignores the reality that neighborhoods are places where people invest their lives‘ resources, and where neighbors cooperate to improve the common experience. A neighborhood is not just a collection of isolated housing units — it‘s an integrated entity of real people.

Third, allocating a limited number of ADUs on a first-come, first-served basis doesn‘t work. Homeowners are put in a quandary — if they don‘t apply for an ADU first, their neighbor may; but if they do, they are creating the exact damage that they‘re trying to avoid.

On top of that, the city‘s proposal doubles the allowed size of ADUs, permits ADUs in scrape-offs, and eliminates parking requirements. So it creates huge incentives to pursue profit from redevelopment. Then, because the current ADU density is far below what is currently allowed, staff‘s proposed doubling of allowed ADU density would lead to multiple times as many in reality.

Fourth, this ADU approach will alienate one neighbor from another — the folks next door don‘t get the economic benefit but get the impacts, which are an economic cost. So it‘s one neighbor against another, completely contrary to the comp plan goal of preserving neighborhoods. Also, the impacts of co-ops and pre-existing, non-conforming multi-unit properties are ignored, and no information is provided about HOAs, covenanted areas, PUDs, etc., where ADUs are not allowed.

The first move toward repairing the damage is to put the whole process on hold. The only even marginally pressing issue — illegal ADUs — should be dealt with by empowering the Board of Zoning Adjustment to grant minimal variances for exceptional conditions, after real input from the neighbors. (This obvious idea has had zero traction so far.)

As to the bigger issue, the council could pick two neighborhoods where the issue is boiling, like Martin Acres and Uni Hill. Invite a dozen residents who represent varying perspectives to meet with a knowledgeable facilitator, with staff support, to (1) identify the particular issues for that neighborhood, (2) quantify the interest in ADUs and the reasons, and then (3) write up regulations, processes, etc., that would allow neighbors to work together to solve each others‘ concerns. Boulder citizens are smart and knowledgeable enough to do a great job. The key is just to pick the right people. Having this selection process be transparent with feedback from the council has worked well in the past.

Such a process may be difficult and time consuming, and the final rules will be neighborhood specific and so more complex. But that‘s a small price to pay for allowing people to work together to try to address their common concerns, rather than having their lives directed by others. From all I‘ve heard, it would be a breath of fresh air for citizens on all sides who feel more and more disenfranchised and ignored.

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