Published in the Nov. 29, 2018, edition of the Lyons Recorder.
COMMENTARY: What’s the future of affordable housing in Lyons?
Will allowing tiny homes on wheels as ADUs cut costs and lower rents?
by Amy Reinholds
Under the guise of “increasing affordable housing in Lyons,” a market-rate proposal that hasn’t been proven as a viable way to provide more lower cost rentals in town is on its way to a final step with the Lyons Board of Trustees on Dec. 17. [Note, this vote will probably be postponed until January, but a workshop to discuss the issue is scheduled for Dec. 17. See Neighbors now have a say about large accessory buildings.]
On Nov. 26, four members of the Planning and Community Development Commission (PCDC) approved recommending that the Town of Lyons Board of Trustees adopt an ordinance amending town code to allow tiny homes on wheels as accessory dwelling units in town residential zones. Commissioners Roger Flynn, Doug Miller, Neil Sullivan, and Gregg Oetting all voted in favor of the resolution. Commissioners Clay Dusel, David Neufield, and Joshua Schnabel were absent from the meeting.
The existing Lyons accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance already allows small mother-in-law apartments or carriage houses to share utility connection fees with the main house (saving homeowners $20,000-$40,000 in construction costs) in residential zones. You can read the ordinance at www.townoflyons.com/566/Accessory-Dwelling-Units . Applicants must go through a conditional use review process, including a public hearing for their immediate neighbors and the general public to comment. Homeowners of ADU properties must rent for periods of 30 days or longer (for example, at least a month-to-month lease), and cannot use their properties for short-term vacation rentals. The process for adding ADUs (small carriage houses or mother-in-law apartments) to single family home residential lots was created and modified in the Town of Lyons during the past few years, aiming to encourage more available rentals in town at lower costs because of the size, but still at market rate.
This new change to the ADU ordinance would allow tiny homes on wheels, built off-site, treating them the same as the ADUs that are built on site. The term “tiny homes on wheels” or sometimes just “tiny homes” describes a trend that started in the early 2000s of small constructed homes that are on built on a trailer frame with axles and wheels, registered like RVs. I’ve heard people describe tiny homes as “gentrified RVs.” Tiny homes on wheels don’t fit into either the International Building Code (IRC) that building inspection companies use or the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standards for manufactured housing (mobile homes). Instead of requiring the IRC, the changed ordinance for the Town of Lyons would allow tiny homes on wheels that are built according to recreational vehicle (RV) standards like American National Standards Institute Park Model Recreational Vehicle Standard 119.5, National Electrical Code Standards 551 and 552, and National Fire Protection Association Standard 1192.
Under the proposed ordinance change, the Town of Lyons would require tiny homes on wheels, like all ADUs, to be attached to all Town of Lyons utilities. The tiny homes on wheels would be required to be anchored and secured and attached to all utilities. Also, occupancy of these tiny homes on wheels are limited to a maximum of four people, based on direction of the trustees to prevent large families or groups of singles jammed into small homes. All the other same requirements for ADUs would apply, including renting to long-term tenants (at least month to month) instead of to short-term tourists.
The additions to town code state that no more than 10 tiny homes on wheels can be used as ADUs within Lyons town limits. After 10 are approved, the Lyons Board of Trustees “can review the effects of tiny homes on Lyons’s affordable housing inventory and may, in its discretion, increase the total allowable number of tiny homes.”
It is not clear what “the effects of tiny homes on Lyons’s affordable housing inventory” means. Will there be data that measures affordability of these market-rate homes? Will it only be affordable to the property owners, or will it be affordable to people struggling to find places to rent?
This proposed change to town code for market-rate ADUs does not keep rental rates low like the Summit proposal for Lyons Valley Park rentals would do. In contrast, Summit Housing Group is proposing a total of 40 rental homes in the Lyons Valley Park subdivision with rents that are affordable for people who earn 60 percent of the area median income or less. Summit is applying for Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery funds, available at a maximum of $100,000 per rental home, up to $4 million for the proposed total 40 residences (29 homes in duplexes and triplexes, and 11 single-family homes). This funding, as well as federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits helps subsidize the rents to be affordable.
At the Nov. 26 PCDC meeting, Commissioner Flynn said “We are going with the assumption that smaller is cheaper,” and Commisioner Oetting said “It’s good old-fashioned capitalism that if you limit the supply, the rental prices will continue to rise.”
But the supply of ADUs aren’t limited with the current town code. Research that town staff reported to the Lyons Board of Trustees in August found approximately 55 non-compliant ADUs in the Town of Lyons (including allowed historically non-compliant ADUs built before some areas had town zoning). And since May 2017, conditional use reviews were completed and approved under the new ADU policy for five new detached ADU buildings. That’s a total of 60 ADUs.
To encourage ADUs, the Town of Lyons doesn’t need to add tiny homes on wheels as an allowed way to build them. At past meetings, it wasn’t even known if purchasing and paying to bring in a tiny home on wheels and connect it to town utilities would really cost a homeowner less than building a tiny home on site. Also, without any changes, current town code allows modular housing for ADUs, something that Trustee Barney Dreistadt has asked about at previous meetings. A homeowner can bring in a modular home constructed off-site for an ADU, as long as it fits in the size requirements (dependent on size of the main house, but no larger than 800 square feet). Modular homes, which arrive to the site in pieces and are constructed on residential lots, meet the IRC requirements that building inspection companies like Town of Lyons contracting company Charles Abbott Associates use.
At a Feb. 26 PCDC meeting, there was not consensus among the PCDC commissioners on how adding tiny homes on wheels as ADUs would help homeowners save money, and therefore encourage more ADUs as rentals in town. At a March 5 Board of Trustees meeting, town staff, PCDC commissioners, and trustees weren’t sure if tiny homes on wheels as ADUs would really be a lower-cost option for rentals. “Are we really creating a cheaper housing option? That’s not clear,” Town Planner Paul Glasgow said.
Trustee Dan Greenberg, who retired from the Board of Trustees in April, said “One of the reasons we tackled ADUs in the first place was for lower-cost rentals (although still market-rate). If we just end up with something that causes expensive rentals, it’s not meeting that goal.”
This week’s PCDC meeting had a majority of four of the seven commissioners present, and they agreed on a recommendation to add tiny homes on wheels. Commissioner Flynn asked Glasgow, “The town isn’t taking any statistics on ADUs and what is being charged?” Glasgow did not have data but as an anecdote said that a studio apartment “that was an illegal ADU” was renting for $1,000 a month. An anecdote I have is from a September community discussion at the Lyons Library about renting in Lyons: a woman mentioned that she found the rent for a new garage apartment being built under the Lyons ADU ordinance was $1500 a month, well above her budget.
“We have heard it makes the property that someone owns affordable (to them),” Glasgow said.
Oetting added that the PCDC heard from “people who were angling for retirement and this is how they were going to supplement it.”
That’s nice if this approach could help increase “affordability” for the property owners in our community, but what about affordability for the renters? Do we want our Town of Lyons code to only help people who already own property?
Back at the March workshop with the Board of Trustees, the PCDC also brought up where ADUs – and tiny home ADUs if included in the ordinance – will go in the Town of Lyons. They will not be in the subdivisions with homeowners associations that will restrict ADUs. Instead, they will be in the old town residential neighborhoods that don’t have homeowners associations. The PCDC commissioners, Oetting and previous Commissioner Mark Browning (before he was seated on the Board of Trustees) asked the trustees how much they wanted the people in those neighborhoods to take on the housing needs of the whole town with this new initiative.
Lyons lost about 76 to 94 flood-destroyed homes. To get an accurate number of housing stock lost in the September 2013 flood, there are two ways to count. First, according to counts of Town of Lyons water taps/customer accounts, 94 customer accounts were lost after the flood (including the 32 homes in Riverbend Mobile Home Park that were originally part of one water tap). However, some of those customer accounts were on Apple Valley Road (not in town limits), and some lots in town have more than one water tap/customer account. A second way to count is the number of flood-damaged homes in the Town of Lyons lost to both the federal buyout programs and to the changed use of the Riverbend Mobile Home Park property to an event venue (rezoned for commercial use), which totals 76 lost residential units. Federal buyouts totaled 44 units – including all residential units in the Foothills Mobile Home Park – and there were also 32 families who lost homes in the Riverbend Mobile Home Park, which was rezoned as a commercial wedding and lodging venue after the flood. (Ironically, that lodging at the former mobile home park is in tiny homes on wheels.)
In March 2015, a proposal for using part of Bohn Park to build subsidized, affordable Boulder County Housing Authority rentals and some Habitat for Humanity for-sale affordable homes (a total of 50-70 homes) was rejected in a town vote, 614 to 498. However, $4 million of federal disaster recover funds were still set aside for affordable housing in Lyons. After that vote, a few concepts for subsidized affordable rentals have been pursued, but Summit’s plan to purchase of the land in Lyons Valley Park is the first step toward that building process. So far, the only post-flood, permanently affordable housing actually in the construction phase is at 112 Park Street where Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley is building three duplexes (a total of six, for-sale homes) on six residential lots. To volunteer or to donate to Habitat for Humanity construction costs in Lyons, go to www.stvrainhabitat.org.
Amy Reinholds served on the Lyons Housing Recovery Task Force from December 2013 through its end in February 2015. She is currently a member of the Lyons Housing and Human Services Commission and served as a liaison to the Special Housing Committee during its existence from April 2015-April 2016. She has lived in Lyons since 2003 and in the surrounding Lyons area since 1995. For a history, you can read previous columns from both Lyons-area newspapers posted on her blog at lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about this column, please contact her directly at areinholds @hotmail.com.