Mother-in-law apartments back in fashion?
Salt Lake City • Banned in 1995, City Council is poised to bring them back.
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Mother-in-law apartments seem to go in and out of fashion like platform shoes. Think Elton John.

They were in, then they were out. Now they're coming back. Consider Lady Gaga.

On Tuesday, the Salt Lake City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposed ordinance that may bring back these accessory dwelling units, but not to every neighborhood.

In the 1960s and '70s, these units, attached to single-family homes, were among the forces that endangered neighborhoods, most notably the Avenues, according to Avenues resident Sydney Fonnesbeck, a former City Council member. People chopped up historic houses into rental duplexes and triplexes.

Fonnesbeck voiced strong opposition at an April public hearing on Mayor Ralph Becker's proposal to reauthorize the mother-in-law apartments. The council banned them outright in 1995.

Under a proposed companion ordinance, homeowners with unlicensed dwelling units — including properties not occupied by the owner — would have one year to apply for permits without penalty. City officials want to identify those property owners to ensure their apartments comply with building codes governing health, fire and safety.

The mayor and others, including Arthur C. Nelson, director of the University of Utah's Metropolitan Research Center, are pushing for the return of mother-in-law apartments as a way to boost housing without increasing infrastructure density.

According to Nelson, Salt Lake City homes contain fewer people than they did in the 1970s and '80s.

Council Chairman Soren Simonsen likes the idea. But he is less enthusiastic about the plan before the council that would allow accessory dwelling units anywhere within a half mile of light rail or streetcar mass transit. That's too limiting, he said.

That proposal is not as restrictive as another one that would limit the apartments to within a quarter mile of rail mass transit. According to a Salt Lake City survey, there are 1,009 single-family dwellings where such apartments could be added within a quarter mile of TRAX. But there are more than four times as many, 4,836, single-family dwellings within a half mile of light rail.

In Councilman Carlton Christensen's west-side district, folks want mother-in-law apartments — if community-council sentiment is any barometer. But Christensen sees the half-mile restriction as a good compromise.

The proposed ordinance also mandates that to rent newly created accessory dwelling units, the owner must live on site. That provision was aimed at consoling those, such as Fonnesbeck, who fear speculators could harm neighborhood historic fabrics by slicing houses into duplexes.

For Esther Hunter, chairwoman of the East Central Community Council, whose neighborhood borders the U. and is rife with such apartments, the legalization ordinance is important to protect student tenants. "Why wouldn't we offer students basic life, health and safety standards?"

csmart@sltrib.com —

Mother-in-law apartments

The Salt Lake City Council's agenda lists a vote on accessory dwelling units 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 451 S. State, room 315.