In the zone

Mother-in-law houses spark urban infill debate


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Ward 1 Councilmember Jason Wiener likes to say that zoning is like grammar: It’s tedious and boring but it’s important because it stipulates the way in which we express ourselves. Although the simile may be apt—or at least poetic—the rules governing the construction of sentences do not regularly send people to the podium at public meetings. The rules governing the construction of Missoula’s neighborhoods, on the other hand, often do.

The Missoula Consolidated Planning Board is currently working with a consultant and the Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) to revamp the city’s zoning regulations. The planning board meetings—wonkish, tedious affairs even for the most enthusiastic participants—typically begin at 7 p.m. and have ended as late as 12:30 a.m. However, in a nod to Missoula’s civic engagement, residents show up. And the attendees come armed with pens, notebooks, their own copies of the rewrite and comments—lots of public comments.

Although many portions of the rewrite are contentious, one topic appears particularly controversial: additional dwelling units (ADUs). These small residences, sometimes known as mother-in-law houses, provide additional housing on a lot where one house already stands. Proponents of ADUs argue they create affordable housing and allow current residents to create additional income. Opponents say ADUs create traffic congestion, strain infrastructure, increase urban density and ruin the character of Missoula’s neighborhoods.

“I think ADUs are clearly the thing that folks are having the most heartburn with,” says OPG Director Roger Millar.

ADUs are currently considered an optional overlay tool that requires notification to the surrounding property owners, planning board review and city council approval. If there is substantial neighborhood protest over a proposed ADU, the city could require a super majority for its approval. ADU proponents hoped to loosen the requirements at a recent planning board meeting, while opponents looked to eliminate them altogether.

Barbara Druffle told the planning board that she bought her first house as a single mother and normally advocates affordable housing options. But she finds ADUs unbearable, the sort of divisive issue that pits neighbor against neighbor.

“What we want is good, solid neighborhoods,” she says.

Jane Rectenwald, a retiree who has fought hard against ADUs, believes urban infill cuts directly into the appeal of a community.

“They’re talking about changing the character of the neighborhood,” she says. “The planning board was talking about windows and siding, and various design elements, but that’s a small part of character. The real character is density.”

Despite clear apprehension from some residents, ADU proponents believe they may be a necessity in dealing with Missoula’s aging population. The city’s fastest growing demographic is either 65 and older or 85 and older, depending on the source. The percentage of retirees in Missoula will double by 2030, according to local economist Larry Swanson. This substantial increase means Missoula’s housing options must change to meet new demands, including older residents who drive less, live on limited retirement funds or require live-in assistance.

“We have a population that wants to live a happy, fulfilling lifestyle after they quit driving,” Millar says. “We will also have a population that will likely live on a fixed income and likely, a modest income. And there is going to be a population that needs access to health care.”

Millar says ADUs give seniors a useful tool to maintain their standard of living. He says they could rent out ADUs to generate extra cash, or use them to provide a residence for caregivers.

Susan Kohler, head of Missoula Aging Services, says ADUs may help tame what she calls the “silver tsunami” in another way. 

“There are a lot of baby boomers right now who have aging parents,” she says. “They would like to have their parents live in the same town, but maintain independence. With an [ADU], they can connect, look after each other, help with yard care, stuff that an older person might not want to do. I think that’s a very positive thing right now.”

Swanson says no matter where seniors decide to live, there will be less demand for traditional three and four bedroom single-family homes in the future.

“They won’t all [move in with their family], but you have that group looking to downsize,” says Swanson, who works for the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. “Juxtaposed with that is the young adults looking for a starter home. You actually have a potentially growing market for ADUs.”

After addressing ADUs at their March 25 meeting, the planning board did not make any significant changes to the current rules. The planning board will discuss other overlay districts at its next meeting on April 7 in the City Council chambers. The planning board’s final recommendations should be ready for City Council evaluation sometime this spring.

No matter how the debate ends, Millar doesn’t believe ADUs will cause sweeping changes in Missoula’s neighborhoods either way.

“I think it’s going to be like chicken coops,” he says, referencing the highly controversial city ordinance allowing residents to raise chickens within city limits. “We permitted it. Some people have it. Some don’t. I don’t anticipate a run on the market for ADUs.”



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