A debate over ‘accessory dwelling units’ in Colorado Springs highlights affordable housing tensions

Known for its sprawl, Colorado's second-largest city grapples with how it might grow

Colorado Springs resident Del Huff wants the ability to build an accessory dwelling unit on his single-family residential-zoned property. Controversy has swirled over whether the city should allow a proposed change to zoning laws that would allow residents like Huff to do so. (Photo by Colin Suszynski)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Del Huff has lived here in Colorado’s second-largest city for nearly a quarter of a century. He and his wife own a five-bedroom home on the city’s northeast side, an area of neat single family homes with large yards and sidewalks. The Huffs estimate they spend roughly 20% of their monthly income on their mortgage, which means their housing costs fall within the federal definition of “affordable.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t worry about being able to stay in the neighborhood. Huff, 73, is semi-retired from his job as CEO of the local faith nonprofit Friendship International. He drives for Lyft and says he’s anxious about how an affordable housing crunch — and the accompanying rising property taxes — might affect his future.

The Huffs would like to grow old in the home in which they raised their family, and, Del Huff says, the ability to build a small rental unit on their property could spell the difference in how he and his wife spend their retirement. They can see one day moving into the smaller unit and renting their larger home, allowing them to remain financially and physically independent as they age.

But as in many Colorado communities, increasing the density of a neighborhood zoned for single-family homes is a controversial proposition, pitting those who see this kind of development as a tool to supplement the affordable housing stock against those who say it risks destabilizing communities, causing congestion and tanking property values. Colorado Springs currently allows lots with more than one dwelling unit only in areas zoned for such.

That could change.

The city council is considering allowing the construction of what are called Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in neighborhoods like the Huff’s.

If that happens, the Huffs and other residents who own single-family lots could build more rental units, increasing density, and, they hope, affordability in another Front Range city grappling with how best to tackle affordable housing in a state with a booming population and over-stressed infrastructure.

“If things don’t change, we’re probably going to be moving out of state,” Huff told assembled city leaders during a recent town hall meeting about the ADU issue.

ADUs alone won’t solve a shortage of affordable housing in the Springs, but some city leaders say allowing for them may be a necessary tool as Colorado Springs stares down the road of a projected population explosion that could see more than 400,000 new residents by 2050, an 85% increase over today’s population.

State demographers estimate Colorado Springs, with its relatively low density of about 2,400 people per square mile and plenty of open space within the city limits, will overtake Denver in population by 2050.

What does an affordable housing crunch look like in the Springs?

In 2019, Colorado Springs, which ranks in the nation’s top 50 largest cities, saw its rental costs spike more than other large cities compared to the previous year, according to a January 2020 rent report. “Nationwide, rents have grown by 1.4% over the past year compared to the 3.4% rise in Colorado Springs,” the report found. Still, the report says, Colorado Springs remains more affordable than most large cities across the country.

The most recent figures available show homeowners in the Springs were paying an average of about $1,500 a month in mortgages. Renters living in a two-bedroom apartment were paying about $1,270 per month, according to ApartmentList.com. For comparison, that’s $100 more per month than the median in Fort Collins, about $200 less than in Boulder, and about $100 less than Denver.

The last assessment of affordable housing needs in Colorado Springs, conducted six years ago, projected the city would need 21,000 more affordable housing units than it would have by 2019.  

City Council President Richard Skorman, who owns a cafe, bookstore, and toy store downtown, estimates the Springs is at least that far behind — if not more.

“We assume we are at least that or more because the city has grown,” he says. “In 2014, [Colorado Springs] was kind of coming out of the recession and no one knew that we were going to be growing as quickly as we are.”

It’s against this backdrop that in early December disagreement over ADUs boiled over during a public town hall meeting in the city council chambers. Members of a group formed in late June called The Colorado Springs Pro-Housing Partnership, or PHP, milled around outside in matching blue shirts and handed out flyers advocating for the city to allow ADUs. 

The coalition includes Colorado College and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs students and professors, faith leaders, small business owners, and advocates of issues such as homelessness and LGBTQ rights, says organizer and CC student Max Kronstadt. 

“We want to live in a city that is affordable, accessible, with good public transportation, that is not segregated where the people who are low-income aren’t living,” Kronstadt said. “If we want to do that we have to start making these changes.”

Public critics of the plan at the meeting were largely residents of single-family zoned neighborhoods in the Springs, as well as members of some neighborhood associations.

For City Councilman Don Knight, who represents a district south of the U.S. Air Force Academy, property rights is a key issue. “This would change [how] their [home] was zoned, without them coming in and requesting it,” he said.

A person who bought a home zoned in a single-family area, he says, has a right to keep their home zoned as single-family. 

While the ordinance doesn’t technically rezone single-family neighborhoods and make them multi-family neighborhoods, critics like Knight fear that it would be a de-facto elimination of single-family zones as defined by the city. 

What is the specific debate in Colorado Springs about?

The battle over ADUs began in February of last year when the city council released a 13-page draft ordinance, elevating tensions in the rapidly growing city. 

The ordinance would allow both attached and detached ADUs. Attached units are similar to duplexes. Detached units are standalone homes on the same property. New units cannot be sold separately of the original home, meaning existing lots cannot be split. 

Over the summer, Colorado Springs City Councilman Andy Pico told his local newspaper that letters to his office were running 5-to-1 in opposition of the change. In the same story, the paper paraphrased Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Jill Gaebler saying “much of that negativity likely stems from fear-mongering by local voices, including media.”

Initially, fierce opposition focused around concern that old neighborhoods would become Airbnb Disneylands where short-term renters might come to stay for a few days of hiking, maybe smoke some legal weed, and essentially degrade the long-time-established character of historic neighborhoods. But, earlier this month, members of the Colorado Springs City Council attempted to neutralize concerns by including in the measure a prohibition on the use of homes in residentially zoned areas solely as short-term rentals.

A neighborhood near Lower Gold Camp Road and 21st Street in Colorado Springs in December 2019 (Photo by Whitton Feer)

At the core of the ADU issue in Colorado Springs, though, seems to be a fundamental difference in opinion about how the city should grow. The area has been called a suburb without a city and has long been known for its urban sprawl. 

As the name suggests, infill adds development to existing neighborhoods, making them denser and creating more housing in a smaller area. “Urban sprawl,” for the uninitiated, is the rapid expansion of suburban areas surrounding a city.

In Colorado Springs, a question about whether one is better than the other depends on whom you ask. 

“I think infill is necessary because that’s where the structures are, the infrastructures for utilities, and frankly, it’s what the next generation wants,” says City Councilman David Geislinger, who represents a northern district near the U.S. Air Force Academy and supports the ordinance to allow ADUs. 

In an interview, Geislinger said he has personally heard stories about students from Pikes Peak Community College and UCCS who “get their degrees while living in their cars, or at the Springs Rescue Mission” because they don’t have access to housing they can afford.

Critics, especially on city council, say “densification,” however, will increase traffic as more people move into the city center. 

Bob Loevy, a retired Colorado College professor and Old North End resident who has been outspoken against ADUs in columns he co-wrote for the local Gazette newspaper, says lower density “provides a lot of advantages.”

Residents in the Springs complain about the traffic, he adds, but to him it’s not as bad as it could be. “I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland,” he says. “This isn’t traffic in Colorado Springs.”

How are other areas handling ADUs?

Colorado’s largest city, Denver, has allowed ADUs since 2015, and since then 155 permits have been granted, with the most, 58, just last year, says Laura Swartz, a spokesperson for Denver’s community, planning and development program. In other words, not a lot for a city where housing affordability is constant concern of residents. Denver property owners can request a permit to build an ADU on their property even if it is not zoned to do so. 

If Denverites want to add an ADU to their property, they have to ensure the project won’t interfere with existing infrastructure and they must obtain proper permits, as well as notify their neighbors. 

Boulder allows ADUs, but has significant regulations. Since the more stringent ADU regulations went into effect earlier this year, Boulder has approved 27 new attached ADUs and 46 detached units— again, like Denver, a small number— and another two dozen are pending. Previously, there were more than 200 approved ADUs in Boulder, says city code specialist Andrew Collins.

In the southwest corner of Colorado, Durango has allowed ADUs since 2014. Since then, only 23 people have requested a permit. Because of the high cost to permit and build one, the rent is expensive and critics have said it is not an effective solution to increase the affordable housing options in the area. 

States from Connecticut to California have policies to allow ADUs in various capacities. Some are enacting policies to allow existing structures such as carriage houses and detached garages to be converted into housing units. 

What do ADUs have to with ‘aging in place?’

Back in Colorado Springs, Del Huff has some institutional support.

The American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, is advising local governments in Mass., Ky., Ill., Ind., and Ore. about allowing ADUs in their communities. The group has waded into the conversation to advocate for ADUs an option for senior citizens to “age in place.”  

“We can do the stairs and things like that now but [the ADU] would be a place where we can still remain on our property and have two options,” Huff said. 

According to demographic data, El Paso County is expected to gain more than 57,000 people over age 65 by 2050, an increase of nearly 60% from today’s population. Roughly two-thirds of the county’s population lives in Colorado Springs and the growth in population of older residents could influence the infill versus sprawl debate as well as heighten the demand for age-appropriate housing.

The pro-ADU argument in this context is that seniors or families with grown children can either downsize to the ADU and rent out the main home as a source of additional income or remain in the home and have family members or a caregiver live in the added housing. 

Additionally, an AARP report suggests ADUs can benefit young people; whether allowing someone to rent one as a cheaper place to live while they settle and start a family or by providing someone a place to live in “established neighborhoods with minimal visual impact and without adding to an area’s sprawl.” 

Still, not everyone is on board. 

Councilman Knight, an ADU critic, expressed some reservations about this argument for ADUs. Seniors wanting to age in place, he said, can work within existing limitations without removing property rights from those who live in single-family zoned areas. 

For Huff, the northeast resident, he expects that if the ADU ordinance passes and he builds another unit, he and his wife will be able to lower their monthly living expenses to between $600 and $800 per month. 

“That’s the kind of affordability we’re looking at,” he said. 

Julia Fennell is a political science major and journalism minor at Colorado College where she writes for The Catalyst student newspaper. She is the social media and marketing director for several organizations, and enjoys investigative journalism.
Arielle Gordon is a junior at Colorado College studying history, political science, and journalism. On campus, she is editor-in-chief of The Catalyst student newspaper and writes for the athletic department. Gordon enjoys covering well known-topics from unique angles.
Risako Nakanishi is an exchange student from Tokyo currently studying journalism at Colorado College where she is also a layout editor for The Catalyst student newspaper. She is interested in business and performing arts.
Colin Suszynski is a political science major and journalism minor at Colorado College. He writes opinion articles for The Catalyst campus newspaper. His articles have covered subjects from antitrust laws in Apple’s App Store to Dr. Dre and the college admissions scandal. He is also a contributor to The Sideline Observer where he has covered cruising pollution and streaming platforms.

3 COMMENTS

  1. If you’re worried about devaluing Colorado springs property values then you’re just evil. They’re so stupid inflated right now. And oh no 20% income on mortgage my ass, I pay 60% of my income to rent.

  2. Great reporting, ADU team! I just wanted to add one more things for this debate. I think there needs to be some concessions, in fact, some funding from the city to the owners who are willing to build an ADU. We’re not trying to destroy the image of our city but to become a city known for being an accommodating, resident friendly city, including senior friendly.
    Furthermore, I don’t understand why a permit for an ADU needs to be costly, if we are going to offer affordable housing then we need to encourage the city to make an affordable compensation to ADU building applicants. And finally, according to the article it v seems in b all the cities where ADU have been allowed , for several years, there have been a very small percentage of home owners applying. I have serious doubts that any one neighborhood is going to have a serious of influx residence or traffic due to ADU’s.

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