Could casitas help prevent displacement in the West’s cities?

As the housing crisis worsens, advocates sound off on how to bring homes to the people.


Today, some of Tucson’s downtown barrios are mere ghosts of their former selves. Many of the longtime residents of these historic neighborhoods, who were primarily Mexican Americans as well as Chinese and African Americans, have been displaced twice in the last half-century.

The first time was in the 1960s, when hundreds of adobe homes were bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. In their 2010 book La Calle, Tucson historian and author Lydia Otero described how the barrios were demolished for a slew of city-approved projects that catered to a growing white suburban population: a multilevel parking garage, a convention center and a police station. Single-family homes with carports and front yards became the preferred style of desert living. Before long, sprawl would overtake the urban landscape.

Now it’s happening again, as moneyed newcomers flock to the remaining neighborhoods and gentrify them. Compounding the problem is the fact that Tucson, like much of the rest of the country, is facing a housing crisis. Prices have risen by nearly 27% over the last year, due in part to low interest rates and a pandemic-inspired influx of transplants from other states. More than a third of the city’s residents are “housing cost-burdened,” spending more than 30% of their income on housing, according to research compiled by the University of Arizona MAP Dashboard project. The same trend is playing out across the West.  

Sharayah Jimenez and her grandmother, Victoria Robles Orosco, stand in front of an addition to the home they share in Tucson’s Southside.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra / High Country News

In order to increase the housing stock, policymakers are increasingly turning to accessory dwelling units, or ADUs — extra units on property typically zoned for single-family houses. ADUs can come in the form of cottages or casitas, or be attached to the existing house, like basement apartments. Though they’re clearly not a solution to the crisis, housing advocates across the region see ADUs as a way to help prevent the displacement of communities by gentrification. They can provide an extra source of income for homeowners struggling to pay rising property taxes, as well as giving renters more affordable housing options.

TUCSON CITY OFFICIALS kicked off the rezoning process to allow for ADUs last November. The Arizona city is a relative newcomer to the growing trend: California and Oregon passed statewide laws in 2019 to encourage ADU construction in response to their own housing crises, having legalized the units many years before. Cities in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Washington are trying to encourage ADU development by making them easier to build and permit.

But critics say this approach can backfire. In a series of public meetings held in May over Zoom, Tucson residents shared some common concerns. Many fear that ADUs could be converted into short-term rentals like Airbnbs, or that investors will simply purchase the properties in order to turn an even greater profit. Furthermore, ADUs are often too pricey for low-income homeowners to build. In Seattle, for example, in 2017, most ADU permits were acquired by already-wealthy homeowners, according to the Urban Land Institute. And while ADUs do provide more affordable options in high-priced cities, they are often still out of reach for low-income residents.

Housing advocates like Sharayah Jimenez believe the solution is to prioritize low-to-moderate-income residents (earning approximately $51,000 for a family of four) in the rollout of ADU development. Jimenez is the founder and principal designer for the architecture firm CUADRO. As part of Tucsons ADU stakeholders’ group, she is focused on making sure the benefits flow to the city’s remaining historic barrios and to the Southside, the mainly working-class Latino neighborhoods where she grew up. “What I'm hoping to do is work with homeowners to teach them how to develop their lots themselves with these ADUs and add value to their homes, (as well as) get the funding and the loans they need to make the improvements to stay in their neighborhoods,” she said. 

“There are ongoing conversations in the city about how we might better support BIPOC homeowners to do those types of projects.”

In Denver, Colorado, an ADU pilot program could soon provide a blueprint for how to reach such residents. Run by the West Denver Renaissance Collaborative, which includes the city and county of Denver and the Denver Housing Authority, the initiative has spent the past year assisting low-to-moderate income residents in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. The program provides between $50,000 to $75,000 in cost savings to homeowners who build ADUs, along with technical assistance and pre-approved designs. In addition, the city is offering $30,000 loans that do not have to be repaid if the owner agrees to rent the unit at an affordable rate for 25 years. Building ADUs requires a fair amount of money that a lot of families don't have upfront,” said Renee Martinez-Stone, the initiatives director. For that reason, residents who are at risk of foreclosure or facing equally dire financial circumstances have the option to join a community land trust, a nonprofit that essentially holds onto the land, removing it from the private market. They can then use that equity to invest in financing the remaining cost of building an ADU. 

Seattle, Washington is also looking for ways to remove financial barriers to ADU construction, said Nick Welch, a city planner. Plans to roll out a loan program targeting low-income homeowners were put on hold during the pandemic, but, he said, “there are ongoing conversations in the city about how we might better support BIPOC homeowners to do those types of projects.”

For residents like Ruby Holland, a housing activist in Seattle, ADUs feel like one of the last chances to prevent further displacement in the citys Central District. Holland grew up in the district, home to the city’s last stronghold of Black residents. Today, she lives in the house her parents bought decades ago, in the days of redlining. Back then, she said, the neighborhood had a majority Black population. Now, however, Black people make up just 20% of residents. So, three years ago, Holland started a neighborhood group, Keep Your Habitat, whose mission is to teach Central District residents how to hold onto their properties by transforming parts of their current homes into ADUs — converting basements into apartments, say, or building backyard cottages, even renting their yards for parking. I feel that whatever investors could do with our property in terms of ADUs, we can do ourselves, (so we can) keep this in our family and have intergenerational wealth,” she said.

“They sell too early, and they get ripped off, and then somebody comes in and does what they probably could have done themselves.”

Holland’s efforts took on new urgency in 2019, when the city passed the Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation. Though her house fell outside its boundaries, many of her neighbors were affected by the legislation, which allowed single-family homes in parts of the city to be redeveloped into multifamily units. She calls it “redlining in reverse,” because ever since it passed, her neighbors have faced increasing pressure to sell to developers, even as their property taxes have increased. Holland fears that this type of policy is intentionally forcing the citys last Black residents out of Seattle. But Stephanie Velsasco, a communications manager with the city, defends the MHA as a tool to increase affordable housing, “not (one) that is actively displacing households.”

BACK IN TUCSON, Jimenez hopes to incorporate ADUs into the community before it’s too late. It’s already happening informally in the Southside, where a majority of work has been done without permits. "We have no data on this, but we think that there's a very large number of these unpermitted units already in existence. So part of our work is to make sure that those homeowners who have already done this have a clear path as to how to get their units (permitted),” she explained.

Rather than penalize the new additions, she hopes the city can find ways to promote them by educating current homeowners about their options and empowering families to hold onto their lots in the face of rising property taxes, much as Holland is doing in Seattle. Otherwise, she explained, homeowners in low-income communities of color often don't realize the value of their land. “They sell too early, and they get ripped off, and then somebody comes in and does what they probably could have done themselves,” she said. 

She applauds how many of the already-built units have been created in what she calls a “barn-raising fashion,” in which family and neighbors help people build their units to keep costs low. Often the new ADUs are used to house relatives. “People are already responding to the housing crisis on their own,” she said. “The city is just now catching up to that.”

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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