Today, some of the neighborhoods in downtown Tucson are just ghosts to themselves. Many long-time residents of these historic neighborhoods, who were predominantly Mexican Americans as well as Chinese and African Americans, have been displaced twice in the past half century.
The first time was in the 1960s, when hundreds of mud houses were bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. In their 2010 book The Calle, Tucson historian and author Lydia Otero described how the barrios were demolished for a host of city-approved projects aimed at a growing white suburban population: a multi-level parking lot, a convention center, and a police station. Single family homes with carports and front yards have become the preferred lifestyle in the wilderness. Before long, sprawl would invade the urban landscape.
Now it’s happening again, as wealthy newcomers flock to the remaining neighborhoods and gentrify them. The problem is compounded by the fact that Tucson, like much of the rest of the country, is facing a housing crisis. Prices have risen nearly 27% in the past year, in part due to low interest rates and a pandemic-inspired influx of transplants from other states. More than a third of the city’s inhabitants are “overburdened with housing costs”, spend more than 30% of their income on housing, according to research compiled by the University of Arizona’s MAP Dashboard Project. The same trend is playing out across the West.
In order to increase the housing stock, policy makers are increasingly turning to secondary housing, or ADU – additional units on a property generally zoned for single family homes. ADUs can take the form of cottages or casitas, or be attached to the existing house, such as basement apartments. While clearly not a solution to the crisis, housing advocates across the region see ADUs as a way to help prevent the displacement of communities through gentrification. They can provide an additional source of income for homeowners who are struggling to pay rising property taxes, while also providing tenants with more affordable housing options.
CITY OF TUCSON OFFICIALS initiated the zoning change process to allow DSUs last November. The city of Arizona is relatively new to the growing trend: California and Oregon passed statewide laws in 2019 to encourage the construction of ADUs in response to their own housing crises, after legalizing the units many years ago. Cities in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Washington are trying to encourage the development of ADUs by making them easier to build and license.
But critics say this approach may backfire. In a series of town hall meetings held in May on Zoom, residents of Tucson shared some common concerns. Many fear that ADUs could convert to short-term rentals like Airbnbs, or that investors will simply buy the properties in order to make an even bigger profit. Additionally, ADUs are often too expensive to build for low-income homeowners. In Seattle, for example, in 2017, most ADU licenses were acquired by already wealthy owners, according to the Urban Land Institute. And while ADUs offer more affordable options in high-priced cities, they’re often still out of reach for low-income residents.
Housing advocates like Sharayah Jimenez believe the solution is to prioritize low-to-moderate income residents (earning around $ 51,000 for a family of four) in rolling out ADU development. Jimenez is the founder and principal designer of the CUADRO architectural firm. As part of Tucson‘As an ADU stakeholder group, she works to ensure that the benefits flow to the city’s remaining historic quarters and the Southside, the predominantly working-class Latin American neighborhoods where she grew up. “What I hope to do is work with homeowners to teach them how to develop their lots with these ADUs themselves and add value to their homes, (as well as) get the financing and loans they have. need to make the necessary improvements to stay in their neighborhoods, ”she said.
“There are conversations going on in the city about how we could better help BIPOC owners with these types of projects. “
In Denver, Colorado, an ADU pilot program may soon provide a model for reaching these residents. Managed by the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative, which includes the City and County of Denver and the Denver Housing Authority, the initiative spent the past year helping low-to-moderate-income residents in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification. The program offers between $ 50,000 and $ 75,000 in savings to homeowners who build ADUs, along with technical support and pre-approved designs. In addition, the city offers loans of $ 30,000 which do not have to be repaid if the owner agrees to rent the unit at an affordable rate for 25 years. “Building ADUs requires a good amount of money that a lot of families don’t have up front, ”said Renee Martinez-Stone, the initiative‘director of s. For this reason, residents who are at risk of foreclosure or who face equally dire financial situations have the opportunity to join a community land trust, a non-profit organization that essentially owns the land, taking it out of the private market. . They can then use that equity to invest in financing the remaining cost of building an ADU.
Seattle, Wash., Is also looking for ways to remove financial barriers to building ADUs, said Nick Welch, a city planner. Plans to roll out a loan program targeting low-income homeowners have been put on hold during the pandemic, but, he said, “there are conversations going on in the city about how we could do better. help BIPOC owners to carry out these types of projects “.
For residents like Ruby Holland, a housing activist in Seattle, ADUs feel like one of the last chances to prevent further displacement in the city‘s Central District. Holland grew up in the neighborhood, which is home to the city’s last stronghold of black residents. Today, she lives in the house her parents bought decades ago during the era of redlining. At the time, she said, the neighborhood had a predominantly black population. Today, however, blacks make up only 20% of residents. So three years ago Holland started a neighborhood group, Keep Your Habitat, whose mission is to teach Central District residents how to conserve their properties by turning parts of their current homes into ADUs – converting them. basements in apartments, for example, or by building a backyard. chalets, even renting their yards for parking. “I think whatever investors could do with our property in terms of ADU, we can do it ourselves, (so we can) keep that in our family and have intergenerational wealth, ”she said. .
“They sell too early, and they get ripped off, and then someone comes in and does what they probably could have done on their own.”
The Netherlands’ efforts took on new urgency in 2019, when the city passed mandatory housing affordability legislation. Although his home sits outside of its boundaries, many of his neighbors have been affected by legislation, which has allowed single-family homes in parts of the city to be redeveloped into multi-family units. She calls it “backward redlining” because since its adoption her neighbors have faced increasing pressure to sell to developers even as their property taxes have increased. Holland fears that this type of policy will intentionally force the city‘s last black residents outside of Seattle. But Stephanie Velsasco, city communications manager, defends the MHA as a tool to increase affordable housing, “not (one) that actively displaces households.”
BACK TO TUCSON, Jimenez hopes to bring ADUs into the community before it’s too late. This is already happening informally in the Southside, where the majority of the work has been done without a permit. “We don’t have any data on this, but we believe there are already a huge number of these unauthorized units out there. So part of our job is to make sure that the owners who have already done so have a clear path on how to get their units (permits), ”she explained.
Rather than penalizing the new additions, she hopes the city can find ways to promote them by educating current homeowners about their options and allowing families to keep their land in the face of rising property taxes, just like Holland does. in Seattle. Otherwise, she explained, landowners in low-income communities of color often do not realize the value of their land. “They sell too early, and they get ripped off, and then someone comes in and does what they probably could have done on their own,” she said.
She applauds the number of pre-built units that have been created in what she calls a “barn rearing mode,” in which family and neighbors help people build their units to keep costs down. Often the new ADUs are used to house relatives. “People are already reacting to the housing crisis on their own,” she said. “The city is just catching up. “
Jessica kutz is associate editor for High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or send a letter to the editor.