Provo City Council avoids expansion of student housing options

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A rental property sits just south of the BYU campus. Provo City Council recently restricted where accessory dwelling units are allowed, limiting an option that could make housing more affordable for students. (Brigham Tomco)

The Provo City Council voted to prohibit accessory dwelling units in most residential neighborhoods, limiting a potential solution to Provo’s student housing crisis and highlighting community tension between long-time residents and BYU students.

Accessory dwelling units are rentable living spaces located in owner-occupied single-family homes. They come in varying forms, including basement, attic and garage apartments and are considered to be a relatively painless solution to shortages in affordable housing.

“ADUs are a very effective way to almost immediately increase the housing stock of a city without any significant investment in the infrastructure,” said George Handley, a BYU professor and a city council member since 2019.

The council voted on Dec. 14 after a city council meeting and public comment session to approve changes to the city code that would ban internal accessory dwelling units in approximately 67% of residential areas.

The decision by the council to limit ADU development came in response to a new state law, HB82, which requires internal ADUs to be labeled as “permitted use” in all residential zones throughout the state. College towns with a student population of 10,000 or more may prohibit ADU’s in up to 67% of residential areas.

After much discussion in fall 2021, Provo City Council members determined that changes needed to be made to the city code. Though the code only pemitted ADU’s in 23% of residential areas, it did not explicitly prohibit them anywhere which left all Provo neighborhoods open to ADU development under the new state law.

This possibility was opposed by many Provo homeowners and some members of the city council, who cited fears during the meeting of increased traffic, predatory landownership and the transformation of quiet neighborhoods into busy student communities.

The council approved a zone list specifying where ADUs would be prohibited, leaving 11% more residential areas open to ADU development. This ensured Provo stays in compliance with HB82 — achieving the 33% minimum required by the state — while also prohibiting ADU development as much as possible.

“If you look closely the areas that were picked were pretty meaningless,” Handley said.

This was intentional, according to councilmember David Shipley. “It didn’t really expand the area in practice,” Shipley said. “And that was by design from some of the counselors.”

Despite a majority of the seven-member council wanting some form of ADU expansion, the all-or-nothing attitude of some council members and the urgency to come into compliance with state law led those opposing ADUs to get their way, Shipley said.

The council agreed to do the minimum to comply with HB82, putting ADU expansion on the slate for later discussion, Shipley said.

Rock Canyon neighborhood chair David Wright spoke at the city council meeting and urged the council to prohibit ADUs to the full 67% allowed under the new state law.

Wright, a BYU math professor, worries that deregulating ADUs in Rock Canyon would change the “character of the neighborhood.”

Wright cited the Joaquin neighborhood as an example of what can happen when market pressure is allowed to transform a neighborhood from its original feeling and design.

“We have a friendly neighborhood and having it overrun with single students would be a disaster because they would park cars all over the street,” Wright said. “Eventually our neighborhood will look like a bunch of duplexes.”

While Provo homeowners voiced their opposition to this outcome, students at the city council meeting commented on the need for affordable housing.

BYU junior Dylan Cindrich is studying geography with an emphasis in urban and regional planning. At the city council meeting he described Provo’s housing situation as a newly married student and prompted those in attendance to recall when they were in his shoes.

Cindrich lives south of campus with his wife. Although they are not from Utah, they have fallen in love with Provo and hope to stay after graduation if home prices and income allow.

However, that prospect looks increasingly unlikely to him.

“You have to take whatever you can get unless you have like 1,500 bucks to spend on rent a month, which as a student is ridiculous,” Cindrich said. “Anything under a thousand dollars you have to fight tooth and nail to get.”

The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Provo is $1,108, up from $685 in 2006, according to Rentdata.org.

Cindrich predicted because of BYU’s recent change in housing policy — which allows students to live outside of the previously established 2-mile radius of approved housing — students will keep looking farther away from campus to find affordable rentals, including in neighboring cities which allow for more ADUs.

Expanding ADU availability in Provo would have been an obvious way for the city council to help decrease rental prices for students, said Aaron Skabelund, a BYU history professor who ran for Provo City Council in 2021.

“It would have given students choices of where they could live that would be more affordable because if you can increase the supply, then the demand is going to go down,” Skabelund said. “It’s Econ 101.”

Skabelund said opposition toward ADU expansion is emblematic of an underlying tension between Provo’s long-time residents and the student population.

“People in Provo generally love BYU. But they want nothing to do with BYU students. They don’t want them to live near them,” Skabelund said. “They think they represent lots of traffic and parties at night.”

Councilmembers, like Handley and Shipley, hope that despite the strong feelings surrounding the issue of ADUs that both sides can feel heard.

“We really care. We want to hear from students and get their needs met,” Handley said.

Both Handley and Shipley said ADU expansion was still on the table for further discussion. But ADUs should not be thought of as a fix-all solution to this problem, Shipley cautioned.

Shipley said a complete solution will require changes to many different areas, including altering zoning rules to allow for smaller lots, room sizes and houses.

Regardless of how Provo decides to address its housing crisis, growth is inevitable, Cindrich said.

“Cities are constantly changing and we need to be okay with that,” he said. “What’s wrong with more neighbors?”

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