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Tucson's proposed casita rules are a good step toward a better tomorrow

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What the Devil won't tell you

Tucson's proposed casita rules are a good step toward a better tomorrow

  • Backyard casitas, like the one seen here, could provide a key cog in the engine that drives Tucson's future growth.
    City of TucsonBackyard casitas, like the one seen here, could provide a key cog in the engine that drives Tucson's future growth.

Tucson Development Services Director Scott Ross put it to the Planning and Zoning Commission like this: "Things are changing in land use discussions within the city of Tucson."

Oh behave, you naughty, naughty boy.

For all my ranting against MAGAism, my beseeching for more money for public education, my frustration with the Mark Finchem wing of the Arizona Legislature and rants about the pro-coronavirus wing of the GOP, I am really just a growth and redevelopment reporter asking a zoning designation …. to love him.

Notting Hill reference aside, a good old-fashioned land-use debate gives me Chandler-and-Joey levels of nostalgia; there's nothing quite like talk of minimum setbacks, on-site parking, affordability requirements and infill incentives.

I practically need a cigarette just tapping out keystrokes about it.

And for all my bitching about the Tucson City Council’s sense of inertia and its preoccupation with enacting policies so the members can “say we did something about something,” the city is considering something right now that is meaningful in a real-world way.

It’s an "accessory dwelling unit" amendment to the Uniform Development Code. That's plannerspeak for they want to let you build a guest house on your lot.

Let me tell you why I think the atrociously named ordinance is cool.

But for starters, let’s do this: I might think ADU sounds sexy. City planners might think it sounds accurate. The term makes everyone else’s eyes glaze over like a donut left in the sun.

An ADU is actually just a smaller version of a house, that homeowners can build on property that already has a house. Tiny houses are suddenly becoming a fetish in some reaches of cyberspace (but the new rule would not allow them, per se) and this is kind of what Tucson is gunning for. If only there was a term that would define the goal with a hint of Tucson’s heritage. Like, I don’t know, something in Spanish, maybe, that would refer to a "small house."

But not something so obscure that nobody would understand what it means or use the term because it's too long. Some languages have that problem.


I know. 

They should call it a "casita."

The urban planner would say "That's what I just did — 'accessory dwelling unit'."

That's how they roll.

The ordinance

The Tucson City Council told city staff years ago to get on this ordinance as a way to deal with the affordable housing crunch.

Under current law, homeowners can build what's basically a detached sleeping porch on residential properties zoned R-1, R-2 and R-3 (most every home in Tucson). It’s like a spare bedroom that doesn’t include a full kitchen. Those structures are also limited to no more than half the size of the main house.

Now, the city is considering a casita ordinance that would allow homeowners to build a true guest house with a full kitchen, but limit the unit's size to no more than 1,000 square feet. They would have to be built on permanent slabs, so tiny houses would be verboten so long as they are mobile.

The idea is to address Tucson’s increasing crunch on affordable rentals, accommodate demographic changes so parents/grandparents can live with family members without living on top of family members, and give homeowners a chance to earn a little extra income in this low-wage town if they choose to rent the units to the public.

And city officials are in the process of gathering quite a bit of public involvement to inform how they write this proposed law. One utterly unscientific survey found 73 percent of respondents either strongly or somewhat approved of the idea. And! And, and, and ... Generation Z has taken part in the process. Under 30s never, ever so much as yelp or nip at zoning ordinances. Ross is right. That right there is a huge change.

The casita rule would address a much bigger change of thinking about how to Tucson considers growth. It wholly embraces the idea of "infill" — usually a term meant for mature zoning journalists only.

It currently exists in draft form and is awaiting the Planning and Zoning Commission's recommendation. The City Council would then hold a public hearing and vote to approve it, reject it or modify it.

Out or in?

Tucson’s population in 1940 stood at a rather sleepy 35,018. In 1950, it yawned and sat up in bed at 46,064. By 1960, Tucson was in full 'roid rage at 212,892. News flash: The growth didn’t stop with Frankie Valle.

Tucson’s growth blew outward. In 1960, Tucson covered 71 square miles. By 1990, it ate up 151 square miles of real estate.

That piles on short-term costs for expanding services like sewer, water, police and fire-fighting. It leads to more motor vehicle traffic as walking becomes less of an option. It also chews up desert and turns it into stucco jungles.

Plus we have a climate crisis we are currently failing to grapple with.

Wanna get people out of the cars? That requires density.

But holy mother of Grijalva do Tucsonans hate the idea of density. A typical response to increased density took place in reaction to the original rezoning of Sam Hughes Place, on a busy corner just south of the neighborhood of the same name. I remember this one because legendary local journalist Chuck Bowden stood before the Planning and Zoning Commission and read something of an essay in opposition that used terms like “snaggle-tooth” and “cheek to jowl.”

It was almost — almost, and I don’t want to exaggerate here — as if the Council were planning to expand a zoo and take out a duck pond. No, obviously not every crime against humanity is as monstrous as Barnum Hill. I mean The Inquisition, Milli Vanilli and Barnum Hill.

Infill development presents enough challenges so developers have just historically preferred to build on the fringes of the urban boundary. A project not surrounded by backyards draws half the NIMBYs.

Building even a 40-home development in an existing neighborhood is hard, especially if it requires a rezoning — a complicated move that property owners have no right to secure and neighbors have all the power to thwart.

To really do a good infill project with any sort of density requires the Tom Doucette model: Be patient. Be calm. Be prepared to listen to neighbors. And build homes that are bonkers expensive. By the time an infill developer surrenders all the concessions required to get neighbors involved, the project ain’t exactly one with starter homes.

The casita model will turn just about all of Tucson homeowners into potential providers of infill one home at a time. A guest house goes in this backyard. A casita goes in that backyard. Another potential apartment in that one over there across from the thing. Presto, pretty soon Tucson is growing more and sprawling less.

Sticking points

Are there challenges? Yeah. Neighbors have a list of familiar gripes largely restated by Councilman Steve Kozachik, whose Midtown ward could bear the brunt of any unintended consequences.

He's talking about parking, absentee landlords, lot size and the much-maligned mini-dorms. These are legit concerns.

City principal planner Daniel Bursuck has been the staff's leader in pursuing the rule change. He seems pretty on top of things and he's answered the questions as well as he can.

First off, there’s parking. The casita rule would require home owners adding a backyard “granny flat” make room for a single car to park, either on the lot or street side. The ordinance now provides a parking waiver for homes near things like like bus stops and bike lanes.

Is that enough? Meh.

Second, out of town developers can come invest and flip properties here, especially if they are free to increase the lot value by adding another full unit to the parcel.The city can’t do much about this and make the designation viable. Financing has proven to be a problem in other areas where “accessory dwelling unit” (nope, still hate it) laws have been tried.

Is that a deal breaker? Meh.

The state Legislature all but binds and gags local government from doing anything about short-term rentals but that's universally true. The only way to fight Airbnb in Tucson is to abandon the city to the pack rats.

A quick disclaimer about me and mini-dorms: Tucson has little sympathy for new homebuyers who failed to notice intermittent A-10 traffic over their heads. I have less sympathy for people buying homes at Mountain Avenue and Drachman Street who are shocked (shocked!) to discover 19-year-old sophomores be about. C'mon.

The threat of mini-dorms has not borne out in other communities that have tried it, Bursuck said. I did a couple quick and dirty calculations about 8x5 bathrooms, 11 x 11 standard sized bedrooms and a kitchen plus a kitchen and living room. Yes. It’s possible to build four bedrooms in 1,000 square feet. But it’s not easy.

Mini-dorms tend to be quite a bit bigger. In Manhattan, maybe. Tucson? Meh.

I "meh" because these will require the City Council make political decisions that move forward on policy that comes with tradeoffs. Sometimes government addresses a few big problems and creates several little ones. That's the balancing required of governing.

A plug for 'uncontrolled' growth

We need to start growing in, instead of out. Tucson could use more rentals in a hurry and not necessarily have to wait for developers to attack a problem lining their pocket. The casita ordinance isn’t the be-all end-all to achieve that goal. It is, however, a step in the right direction.

Affordability is going to become a bigger problem than the situation that's already prompting this measure. In fact, half of all renters are financially stressed by their rent, because it’s costing them more than half their income, Bursuck told the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Just flat-out adding inventory will drive up vacancy rates and ease the cost of rent. Also, with interest rates where they are, financing won’t cost much and that will allow for newer units to be priced lower but still priced high enough for property owners to earn some scratch.

There’s a degree to which affordable units must be built to specific rental standards but there’s also a need for the whole market to loosen to help achieve affordability.

What’s more, fighting climate change by reducing carbon will require a bunch of little measures that create more density. Worldwide, the 20-minute neighborhood is catching on to give people a chance to quickly and easily walk to their destinations, which is almost exactly how the world was growing before cars.

This isn’t that, but it’s something.

Also, I want to separate growth management from growth micro-management.

There's an organic, ground-up quality to how cities grow and remain communities. Williams Center is a perfectly fine project that looks like every other generic project like it in America. Sometimes you just want the Chicago Store or Pinnacle Peak or the whole of South Tucson.

This project will let Tucson grow with a flexibility to create a bit of individuality and individual flare. A little bit of clashing is a good thing.

The ordinance would help Tucson grow while restraining its urban footprint and retaining the the often senseless aesthetic that keeps this place a product of the people who live here rather than someone's mass-produced orderly vision.

I like it.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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