“What is densification?” “What are these accessory dwelling units (ADUs) all about?” “Why will they end single-family zoning in Colorado Springs?”
These questions come up regularly, mainly because Colorado Springs city officials have done a lame job of explaining the new ADU high-density housing program City Council is scheduled to consider adopting on June 25.
Densification is a housing theory being legislated in California. Buildable open land is about exhausted in these two giant cities, thus there is a housing shortage. The California Legislature has responded by considering a law that allows the construction of apartments in the backyards of homes zoned for single-family residency. This state law would override city and county zoning laws that prohibit apartment buildings or other commercial businesses in single-family zones.
At full build-out, when every single-family home has at least one apartment house behind it, the population of a neighborhood will be doubled, thus the name densification. In effect, every single-family zoned housing area in California could become a two-family zoned area. Along with the doubling of residents in a neighborhood could come an increase in the number of automobiles, thereby adding to neighborhood traffic congestion.
It is a policy trade-off. By crowding more people and automobiles into neighborhoods, the California government gains more housing in the form of all those backyard apartments. The city and state collect more property tax. The traffic jams in the neighborhood are considered a plus because they will be an incentive for people to ride commuter rail.
According to the New York Times, backyard apartments in single-family zones are just the beginning of densification. California’s proposed Senate Bill 50 “would allow four-unit apartment buildings throughout the state,” including single-family areas.
The Colorado Springs version of all this, which was referred by the Planning Commission to the City Council, is called the ADU law. ADU stands for accessory dwelling unit, although we think it might better be called apartment development universal. We coined that phrase because the proposed law allows homeowners in most single-family zones to embark on the commercial venture of building a small apartment house in their back or side yard and renting it to another person or family.
And so this national debate over the purposeful densification has come to Colorado Springs. Will the backyard apartment buildings allowed by the proposed ADU law be appropriate for our city?
We think it is ill-advised. Unlike San Francisco and Los Angeles, there is still plenty of buildable land for housing in Colorado Springs. The city has, wisely in our opinion, annexed considerable land at the city periphery and has it readily available for homes, apartments, mixed-use, or any other form of housing the market calls for. Public money could be used to build affordable housing on these empty lands.
We also note that the automobile jams caused by densification are supposed to stimulate the use of commuter rail. San Fran and LA have plenty of commuter rail, but Colorado Springs has none and no plans to build any. Have you noticed the increased traffic on Academy Boulevard, Interstate 25, and elsewhere? The densification created by the Colorado Springs ADU law would create traffic jams from which there would be little relief.
We worry about the individual homeowner who has bought a home in a single-family zoned neighborhood but, once the council adopts this new ADU law, will be living in a two-family zone with apartment houses and minimotels likely to go up soon. We regard single-family zoning as a pledge by city government to the homebuyer that the zoning you have when you buy the home will be forever maintained. The ADU law breaks that pledge and forces the homebuyer-turned homeowner into living in a de facto two-family zone filled with apartments and minimotels.
This is a major issue for Colorado Springs. There are two visions of the future of our city. One preserves our strong downtown-area neighborhoods as the strong single-family zoned neighborhoods they are now. The ADU law, on the other hand, will crowd them with more people and jam them with more automobiles. That is what densification does.
When it come before the council for approval in June, it should be a heated discussion because the stakes for homeowners anywhere in the city are so high. If you do not want your zoning compromised by the ADU law, then write, phone, or email council members and tell them densification might be good for California but not for us.