Alex Taft’s June 19 guest column claims to give the straight facts on accessory dwelling units. For newcomers to this discussion, ADUs are also known as alley houses or non-conforming (illegal) apartments, and Taft’s proposal before Missoula City Council would allow them in single-family neighborhoods where they are now not allowed. He argues that an approval process should not be required to build one. Sadly, he offers many supposed benefits to the community at large for this policy, but none for the homeowners and neighborhoods whose zoning would be permanently changed from single to multiple family.
We speak from a neighborhood that will be adversely affected by this plan, often having lived in our neighborhoods for many years, raising our children there and investing much time and money in our homes, neighborhood and community.
One of our primary concerns is that the proponents of this initiative in the City Council seem deaf to the notion that zoning is a covenant between the city and its residents establishing guidelines for development. The truth is that zoning prevents commercial developments like bars and casinos in residential areas and governs the density of each zoning district. Some districts allow multi-family structures such as duplexes and apartment buildings and others do not. Zoning is the city’s promise to citizens that guarantees predictable neighborhood structure and secures its residents’ investment in their property, which is widely regarded as the lion’s share of the average American’s net worth. So, should neighborhood homeowners have a fair concern about how such a zoning change will affect them? We say yes.
A lack of affordable housing and a deficiency in rental housing in general are most often given as reasons for Taft’s initiative. A fair person cannot argue with either of these concerns. However, Missoula developers have built hundreds of housing units along its major corridors in the last five years, yet there is still a shortage. And, except for subsidized housing, most units are being rented at their greatest market value. If a few dozen units are added by building ADUs, is it really going to solve this problem?
We flatly reject Taft’s assertion that his plan is necessary to provide relief for seniors and young couples. Neither of these special groups typically needs to or can afford to build an alley house or basement apartment, leaving real estate investors as the principle beneficiaries of this scheme. Also, there already exist many legitimate ways of responding to changes in our housing, health care and family needs without amending zoning codes. Some of these would be apartments, duplexes, starter homes and retirement villages.
Did you know that, thanks to Missoula’s city government, eight unrelated people can now live in a house which had been occupied by only one family 10 years ago? This has resulted in a huge increase in density in many single-family neighborhoods and has created additional parking, noise and trash problems. At the same time, the University of Montana has abandoned any pretense of providing requisite housing for its ever-increasing enrollment as it continues to “grow” its student body, compounding the existing problems. Now, many of our city council representatives want to allow alley houses, which will make things even worse!
If you ask homeowners in Missoula how they feel about this, most would tell you that they like things just the way they are. They bought their houses because they liked their neighborhood. They anticipated little change. And they would be angry if the city council allows their next-door neighbor to build a 22-foot tall house in his back yard, a house which would obstruct the sun or the view of the mountain and, most important, shatter their privacy and property value.
If you share these concerns, talk to your neighbors and call, write or email the city council at email@example.com today to express your concerns.
John Snively is president of the University Area Homeowners Association board of directors; he and Jim Rolando, Ron Williams, Lee Clemmensen, Ian Lange, Robert Rowe, Fred Bodholt and Brandy Gillespie write on the board’s behalf.