Published in the January 10, 2019, edition of the Lyons Recorder.
COMMENTARY: What’s the future of affordable housing in Lyons?
New advantages for property owners who want “tiny homes on wheels” as ADUs
by Amy Reinholds
A majority of the Lyons Board of Trustees voted on Jan. 7 for an ordinance that gives new advantages to property owners who want to bring in tiny homes on wheels (registered as RVs) as accessory dwelling units in the backyards of their single family home residential lots. Does this change in accessory dwelling unit (ADU) code give any advantages to renters who are struggling to find a place they can afford to rent in town? It’s not clear.
There are currently about 60 accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in the Town of Lyons. 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 existing ADU policy for five new detached ADU buildings. The existing Lyons ADU ordinance already allowed small carriage houses that are built on site or are modular homes contracted off-site, as long as they meet International Building Code (IRC) and fit into the size requirements of the ADU ordinance. The new changes in town code approved Jan. 7 now allow tiny homes on wheels that do not fit into the IRC code that building inspectors use, but 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. 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 on wheels as “gentrified RVs.”
After a public hearing of mainly business owners related to the tiny homes on wheels industry and tiny home living advocates from Boulder and Colorado Springs, five out of seven trustees voted to allow tiny homes on wheels as ADUs in the Town of Lyons. Mayor Connie Sullivan, Trustee Juli Waugh, Trustee Barney Dreistadt, Trustee Mark Browning, and Trustee Jocelyn Farrell all voted in favor of the changes to town code. Although home owners associations do not allow ADUs, Mayor Sullivan said the neighborhood where she and Trustee Dreistadt live, Eagle Canyon, “when it gets older” might eventually change so that it no longer prohibits ADUs. Does that mean that Eagle Canyon might one day see tiny homes on wheels in backyards?
Trustee Wendy Miller and Trustee Mike Karavas voted against allowing tiny homes on wheels as ADUs. Trustee Miller expressed concerns about why tiny homes on wheels would be allowed when other RVs are not. “I don’t think this is going to create more affordable housing, in fact I think it might be the opposite. I think it might put the last nail in the coffin as far as gentrification.” Miller had previously raised the issue of tiny homes on wheels having a vehicle identification number and not paying into property taxes like other ADUs would as property improvements. She said that she thought manufactured housing (mobile homes), which are inspected by the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and meet IRC code, are more safe than tiny homes on wheels and other RVs. She did get confirmation from Town Planner Paul Glasgow at the Jan 7 meeting that a mobile home that met the small size requirement (depending on the size of the main house) would also be allowed as an ADU under the changed ordinance. Trustee Karavas cited issues of neighborhoods where the Lyons Fire Protection District has expressed concern that fire hydrants don’t have enough pressure for existing homes. “We haven’t completed the testing of fire hydrants,” he said. “I also have concerns that that we are telling people that other kinds of housing are not welcome in Lyons.” His statement implies that owners of other RVs that are not “tiny homes on wheels” might expect that their RVs should be allowed as ADUs also.
You can read the existing ordinance at www.townoflyons.com/566/Accessory-Dwelling-Units. Applicants for all detached ADUs (including tiny homes on wheels) 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 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. An existing advantage to homeowners is that ADUs can share utility connection fees with the main house, saving homeowners $20,000-$40,000 in construction costs. Like all ADUs, tiny homes on wheels are required to be attached to all Town of Lyons utilities. In addition, the tiny homes on wheels are 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.
The ordinance, described as experimental by both Glasgow and several of the trustees, has a number limit and a year limit before a future Board of Trustees needs to review it again. The ordinance states that no more than ten tiny homes on wheels can be used as ADUs within Lyons town limits, and a future Board of Trustees may “review the effects of tiny homes on wheels on Lyons’s affordable housing inventory” and vote to allow more. (However, it is not clear to me what “the effects of tiny homes on Lyons’s affordable housing inventory” are or how they will be measured.) Also, the tiny homes on wheels subsection of the ADU ordinance will expire in five years after adoption, although a future board can review and reinstate it.
Mayor Sullivan introduced an ordinance to remove the 5-year sunset clause, but she was voted down by 5 of the trustees. Trustee Browning said the sunset clause “serves a useful purpose because this is such an experimental ordinance.”
Trustee Farrell, although she voted for the tiny homes on wheels changes to the ADU policy, wanted to see the minimum rental period for all ADUs raised to at least 3 months, or maybe 6 months, instead of month-to-month. Mayor Sullivan and Trustee Waugh convinced her not to pursue changing the limit only for the tiny homes on wheels ordinance, but to instead bring it to a future meeting revisiting the overall ADU ordinance. “I think 30 days minimum is too close to promoting a hotel type environment in neighborhoods,” she said. “We need to have enforcement so we don’t have a VRBO community. I like the idea that people being in a home longer will be more entrenched in our community.”
Tiny homes on wheels have not been proven to cost less than building ADUs on site, or bringing in modular buildings for ADUs, all which are already allowed in the Town of Lyons ADU ordinance. According to TinyHouseTalk.com, pre-built tiny homes on wheels cost around $40,000-$50,000, although other websites show prices up to $100,000. Spruce.com found the median price in the U.S. for tiny homes on wheels was $59,884 in 2017, and local Lyons area builder Simblissity currently has one for sale for $89,000. Why would a homeowner paying this much for a tiny home on wheels charge less rent than for a modular or an on-site built ADU?
This change to town code for market-rate ADUs does not keep rental rates low like a proposal from Summit Housing Group for rentals in duplexes, triplexes, and single family homes would do. Summit 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, would help subsidize the rents to be affordable for those lower incomes.
Finally, the decisions that the Lyons Board of Trustees made on Jan. 7 do not affect the rural areas in Boulder County and Larimer County outside the town limits of Lyons. People looking for landowners who will allow them to park tiny homes on wheels on their rural properties aren’t affected by Town of Lyons ordinances if the property is not in town limits of the Town of Lyons. However they would need to find out the rural Boulder County or Larimer County land use codes that apply to those properties, depending where they are located.
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 and sewer 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 sewer customer account). 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.
This column is a commentary (opinion column) in the Lyons Recorder. For a history, you can read previous columns from both Lyons-area newspapers at lyonscoloradonews.wordpress.com. If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about this column, please contact me directly at areinholds @hotmail.com.