There’s a little place for rent in East Dallas for $750 a month — a modest-looking 650-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment behind a 1935 house a short swing away from Tenison Park Golf Course. If you have a little extra coin and don’t need as much space, there’s another within walking distance of Bishop Arts for $995. It’s a little smaller but completely remodeled — shiny shades of gray and white. Looks almost, dare I say, Uptown.
Both Craigslist offerings are garage apartments, which aren’t easy scores in this city — because garage apartments aren’t allowed in most residential neighborhoods in Dallas. You technically can’t rent them, unless they were built before 1946. And you certainly can’t build them anywhere, unless a special city panel gives you the OK.
I had no idea that was the case until a few years back, when the City Council first started debating accessory dwelling units — also known as back houses, granny flats, mother-in-law suites or, you guessed it, garage apartments. Turns out I’m friends with a few law-breakers for whom their first live-alone address was a rental pad behind someone else’s house.
Some cities see them as one answer to the nation’s affordable housing crisis — the Backdoor Revolution, so goes the title of a book penned by a Portlandian now "preaching the granny-flat gospel," according to CityLab. And some cities, Denver among them, see so-called ADUs as a way to let people keep their homes amid forever-rising property tax bills and the threat of gentrification.
"What’s not to love?" read a piece in Denverite last year. "Homeowners get an additional source of income, renters get more options and neighborhood character doesn’t change as dramatically as when single-family houses are scraped for mid-rise apartments."
In the early ’90s I rented a small — and surprisingly cheap — University Park fourplex, around the corner from Snider Plaza. We parked out back, beneath a rickety garage apartment in which a single mother and her young daughter lived so the girl could go to University Park Elementary around the corner. And it was legit: University Park — and Highland Park — allow ADUs by right. So do San Antonio and El Paso and Austin. And San Diego and Philadelphia.
But not Dallas. Not yet.
Dallas has spent the last three years wrestling with whether homeowners could construct and lease accessory dwelling units in residential neighborhoods. But the time for hand-wringing is over: The council is hours away from voting on this city’s first official comprehensive housing policy, of which accessory dwelling units are a small but substantial part, especially in the so-called Stabilization Areas where some shoring up is needed before city-incentivized development can occur.
On Monday, the council’s housing committee again discussed allowing ADUs, and with one exception it sounded like everyone’s on board. Question now is: Does the council make it citywide, as Philip Kingston and Lee Kleinman want, or will neighborhoods get to vote first before allowing granny flats in the backyard, as city staff recommends? That’s one kink among a small handful to get worked out before next month’s scheduled vote that would finally tell you what you can build and rent in your backyard.
The tussle started in 2015 and stalled shortly thereafter, after the can was kicked to the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee and the City Plan Commission — both of which wound up quashing the proposal.
At public hearings, they heard from advocates and also detractors who insisted ADUs would overburden code and schools and water and sanitation, decrease property values, increase crime. Count Pleasant Grove council rep Rickey Callahan among the naysayers. He said Monday that there are many illegally built ADUs in his district, and that his constituents worry they will "increase destruction of family-oriented society" and cause the "rapid slumification of Dallas housing stock" and "increase chaos to local governance."
The only thing he didn’t warn about was 40 years of darkness, the dead rising from the grave and dogs and cats living together.
"I don’t think ADUs are either the apocalypse or the panacea," said north Oak Cliff council member Scott Griggs. "They’re something in between."
ADUs are already renting all over this city — not just in pre-’46 neighborhoods. And there’s not much done about it. The city currently doesn’t have someone checking want ads or driving around peeping for-rent signs planted in front yards or looking up construction dates.
"I don’t know that the city takes a pro-active enforcement perspective," David Cossum, the head of sustainable development, told me Monday afternoon. "We don’t formally allow them, it’s safe to say."
Right now, you can only build an accessory dwelling unit with the blessing of the quasi-judicial Board of Adjustment. Except even with the OK, you still can’t rent them — and there are many rules about how big it can be (less than 1/4th the size of the main house) and what it looks like (has to be "compatible with the main building"). Except I can’t tell you right now how many were built in the last 15 years: The city doesn’t keep a list of the approved addresses. Cossum told me Monday it’s "not more than a handful every year that go through that process" to begin with.
"And usually, it’s just someone’s cabana in North Dallas that includes a kitchen," he said.
How much does that rent for? Because that sounds lovely.