The Tucson City Council has approved a change to a new rule allowing the construction of casitas.
Casitas are built alongside main houses on a lot and are similar to a guest house. They’re an affordable housing solution that’s ideal for large families who need extra living space, proponents say. They can also serve as a better alternative to nursing homes for elderly residents.
Tucsonans will now be able to build the small houses — which are also called accessory dwelling units or ADUs — starting on Jan. 6, as long as no more changes to the policy are made before then.
Council members passed an earlier version of the ordinance on Oct. 19 that allowed casitas in Tucson for the first time in decades. But its implementation was put on pause last month because of concerns about the size of structures permitted in the new code.
“It felt a little rushed and it’s really important we get this right,” said Councilman Paul Cunningham about the original ordinance. “Under no circumstances do I want to repeal the ADU. I’m looking at this one tweak because I think it makes sense for a lot of neighborhoods.”
Cunningham put forward a motion to consider reducing the size limit for casitas on Nov. 16. The original rule allowed casitas to be the same size as their adjacent main homes in some instances, which prompted concern.
Officials were also worried that ADUs would be used as “mini-dorms” in neighborhoods surrounding the University of Arizona campus. Student housing in those neighborhoods, where lots are often small, can lead to issues such as overcrowding, they said.
The potential size limit issues had to be addressed before the ordinance went into effect because of a state law, called Proposition 207, which says the city has to pay for any loss of property value that results from “down-zoning.”
Under the voter-approved law, Tucson can be sued if a homeowner built a casita that was in line with the original code but then had to tear it down because of new and stricter restrictions.
The city wouldn’t be liable if they expanded size limits rules down the line, however, making the strategy of starting small and expanding later a safer option.
“I’m very concerned about Prop. 207,” said Councilman Kevin Dahl who voted for the size reduction. “If we decide that 1,000 square feet in university neighborhoods is catastrophic, or at least a big problem, we can’t go back because of the state’s limitation on liabilities for down-zoning. I think it’s important to err on the side of caution in this case.”
Councilman Steve Kozachik proposed a solution to the problem on Tuesday that allows casitas to be as large as 10% of their lot’s total square footage. For example, an 8,000 square foot lot could contain a casita that’s as large as 800 square feet.
The size of casitas is capped at 1,000 square feet under the Ward 6 council member’s rule.
In a 5-2 vote, council members approved Kozachik’s motion with the caveat that they would review the code in a year to consider changing the size limit once again.
“It means that the ADUs are scaled to the lot size. It is substantially more flexible than any of the options we have on the table right now,” Kozachik said about his proposal. “It addresses the concerns about lot size, it addresses the concerns about scaling — it addresses the concerns that we have.”
Vice Mayor Lane Santa Cruz, who strongly opposed Cunningham’s motion for reconsideration in November, represented one of the two votes against Kozachik’s proposal.
Santa Cruz argued that casitas below 1,000 square feet would be insufficient housing options for big families, while saying it would disproportionately restrict casita size in poor areas of the city where residents are predominantly people of color.
The newly-appointed vice mayor put forward a motion to readopt the original casitas ordinance from October. Her proposal failed immediately because of a lack of support from any other council member.
Mayor Regina Romero also voted against Kozachik’s plan. She echoed Santa Cruz’s sentiment, saying the size reduction would negatively impact some of the city’s most underserved areas.
“This is the type of well-intended action that results in certain areas of our city and the residents who live in those areas being the beneficiaries of investments that contribute to increasing property value and generational wealth at a rate that is different and disproportionate to other areas,” Romero said. “As well intentioned as it is, this particular step will not move us in the right direction when it comes to equity.”
Tucsonans are expected to be able to start building casitas on Jan. 6 after the typical 30-day waiting period between when a rule is adopted and when it takes effect. That date may be pushed back, however, if there are further changes to the ordinance before then.
AUTHOR: Sam Kmack