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Housing

Council Discusses the Difficulty of Building Granny Flats

A year and a half since an ordinance allowing the rentable second units, only two homeowners have taken advantage. But on Monday, Council was lukewarm about clearing red tape.

Dallasites have had the legal ability to add rentable backyard additions to their homes since mid-2018. Only two homeowners have applied to do it.

The city’s granny flat policy was touted as an answer to a severe affordable housing shortage. But it has proven prohibitive. On Monday, the city’s Housing and Homelessness Committee discussed its options for generating more interest. Not everyone was on board.

Granny flats are small units no taller than the main property, some of them attached to an existing house, some of them atop garages, some out in the backyard. Traditionally, neighborhoods have had to opt-in to declare themselves open to what are in city speak referred to as Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs. The less red-taped option would be to allow ADUs by-right in all single-family neighborhoods. The city could create a process to allow neighborhoods to opt out.

“Neighborhood opinions are important, but we have to keep in mind that it’s a few that are loud versus the majority that are quiet,” said Council member Chad West, who represents North Oak Cliff. West says the city is effectively “regulating folks out of the ability to do this.”

Last year, I talked to an ADU nut about Dallas’ regulations. He rated them an F and said that, if the city is serious about generating new units, they would need to be an A:

There’s this guy in Portland, Oregon, Kol Peterson, who has become something of an authority on granny flats. Insofar as there has been a movement, he’s at least a—maybe the—leader. He wrote a book on the matter. And he says there are four cities that have gotten their codes right—Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, and Vancouver. Everywhere else has killed ADUs with bad regulations, namely by doing any of three things: they require off-street parking, they require the property owner to live on-site, or they require neighbor consent.

Dallas requires at least one off-street parking space—except when the unit is close to a DART station; requires the owner to live on-site, either in the main home or in the ADU, while renting the main home; and brings the opinions of neighbors into the process.

From the reactions of the committee, passing anything worthwhile could prove challenging. Council members expressed concerns about the units being turned into short-term rentals. They’re nervous about parking. And, as much as anything, they have nerves regarding the inability for Dallas to enforce its existing codes on non-registered ADUs. South Oak Cliff Council member Carolyn King Arnold said she’d rather see dollars committed toward boosting code enforcement efforts. She says existing, non-registered ADUs contribute to blight.

So far, there haven’t been any neighborhoods that have come together to get an ADU overlay on their district, which gives a green light to homeowners to build and rent. You might recall that former Councilman Philip Kingston’s neighborhood near Lower Greenville made the change, but even they skirted the need for the onerous formal overlay process by changing their conservation district code to allow ADUs. Most neighborhoods don’t have that option. (Kingston would face an ethics complaint over benefiting from something he advocated for around the horseshoe, but the Ethics Advisory Committee ultimately decided there was no violation.)

Outside of overlays, individual applicants can pay a $600 application fee and go before the Board of Adjustment, who assesses the impact on the neighborhood. In that case, neighbors get to weigh in during a public hearing. Two individual applicants, both of them in Casey Thomas’ district in southern Dallas and representing the city’s first two, were approved in January.

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