Magazine Feature / People

Neighbor urges city to change zoning for garage apartments

Bob Sperling’s back yard is a tangle of grass, a mop of trees and a plain-vanilla one-car garage on the alley behind his 114-year-old Victorian home just a mile from campus in the Platt Park neighborhood.

But what Sperling sees there is not a beckoning spring improvement project, but a creative vision of Denver’s housing future: a simple solution amid the lilacs to the vexing problems of providing affordable housing and maintaining neighborhood character.

The vision is called the “granny flat,” a British term for an apartment adjacent to the principal living space of a house. More familiarly, they’re carriage houses, mother-in-law suites, garage apartments, or in the parlance of professional planning, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs).

Carriage houses have been in Denver since the horse and buggy days, and where permitted, savvy homeowners can rent out the units for income they can use to make the mortgage, pay taxes or upgrade their homes. The problem is getting an OK to put in a new granny flat, say as a second story above a garage in the back of a property, as Sperling wishes to do.

“A developer can scrape and put in two units side by side, but I can’t put in a carriage house in the alley,” Sperling says. “It’s not logical. We’re putting all our eggs in the front part of the lot and letting the back part go.”

That may change. A growing group of housing experts and city planners is paying attention to Sperling’s lone-wolf efforts to put the idea on the table. Most notable is the Zoning Code Task Force, a group revamping Denver’s zoning code for the first time since the 1950s.

“The Zoning Code Task Force has the proposal and is in alignment with some of its values,” says zoning Communications Director Julius Zsako. “We are reviewing it.”

Granny flats advocates have briefed the mayor’s office, and Sperling has set up meetings with the Department of Planning and Development, Denver Board of Realtors and the Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation group.

“We’re here to put this on the table,” says Sperling, a retired consultant who attended DU in 1953. “Times have changed, and we’re trying to adapt to a changing environment — and market.”

The principal problem, Sperling explains, is that scrape-offs in older neighborhoods are increasing and affordable housing programs aren’t effective enough.

The scrapes become a problem when owners of small, aging properties sell their houses to developers who put in duplex or triplex units that aren’t in character with surrounding homes. The new units offer space and amenities that homeowners want but distort housing prices and leave charming, older homes worth less than the land they’re on.

If an ADU were allowed on a garage at the back of the lot, Sperling says, the property could become an income-generating asset. Rental income could finance upgrades and provide incentives for people to remain in their homes longer. Further, they could provide independent living for students, aging parents, retirees, boomerang kids or anyone else in need of inexpensive rentals in good neighborhoods.

“It’s a big solution for our affordable housing problem,” says Rich Delanoy, a Denver Planning Board member and a licensed Realtor.

James van Hemert, executive director of DU’s Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, sees additional positives in ADUs. They preserve homes and add to the diversity of a neighborhood, he says, and take advantage of existing infrastructure.

“The city of Denver has inclusionary housing that isn’t working,” van Hemert says. “Something like this can let the market work, individual homeowners can benefit and we can provide a vast array of unique housing in good locations.”

Among the blueprints for ADUs is the city of Santa Cruz, Calif., where the average house in 2002 cost $480,000 and which describes itself as “one of the least affordable cities in the United States in terms of housing.” Santa Cruz adopted an ADU ordinance in 2003 that set standards, provided safeguards and waived fees to encourage use. The result was a nationwide wave of interest and attention.

Even though she doubts the political will exists to change Denver’s ADU code, District 7 City Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie is studying the idea, and three of the four candidates seeking her seat have stated willingness to explore the issue. Only candidate Dennis Smith opposes changing zoning to allow ADUs.

“The most compelling argument for me is to reduce the scrape-offs,” MacKenzie says. “But I’m kind of waiting to see how the neighborhoods feel.”

Sperling, however, isn’t giving up on plans for his garage.

“We want to make granny flats legal again,” he says. “If City Council passed an ordinance, we’d pop the champagne corks. If not, we’ll keep at it.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, May 2007.

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