West Ada

Backyard ‘mother-in-law’ cottages just got easier to build in Boise. Here’s why

In college, Councilwoman Lisa Sanchez lived in someone’s backyard — a house in someone’s backyard, that is.

“It was this gorgeous carriage house,” she said. “It provided this greater sense of community that we had a property owner that cared for us as students. Our families felt better that we were living on a property where we had another person there.”

Backyard cottages typically provide affordable housing in already developed neighborhoods. They’re one way Boise city leaders hope to rein in runaway rents and house prices.

On Tuesday, the Boise City Council voted unanimously to relax city regulations on these units to encourage more density and affordable housing.

The council increased the maximum allowable size of these so-called accessory dwelling units from to 700 square feet from 600. They will allow two bedrooms per unit, up from one. One-bedroom units will no longer be required to provide a parking space, although two-bedroom units will.

To date, the city has permitted just 150 accessory dwelling units, but officials believe more are hiding throughout the city, unpermitted.

The city of Boise is easing restrictions on accessory dwelling units being used as rental properties. Also known as mother-in-law apartments, the units could provide more affordable options in Boise. Darin Oswald Darin Oswald

Nearly every council member said he or she had lived in one of these backyard cottages or built one.

“We had a relationship with this homeowner, and it minimized our discrimination in terms of race, color...” Sanchez told the council.

Holli Woodings spent time at her friend’s apartment, an accessory dwelling unit behind The Torch Lounge, a strip club at 1826 W. Main St. Their friends dubbed the place “The Ship” after the porthole-shaped window that marked their house.

“It’s a way to build affordability, to build density and to allow folks to make a little bit of extra money off their properties,” she told the council. “I want to keep looking at how we can do things to encourage more than one dwelling per parcel.”

0104 council women1
Councilwomen Lisa Sanchez, front, and Holli Woodings have fond memories of accessory dwelling units during their college years. They say the homes offer an affordable housing option for families and students alike. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

Councilwoman Elaine Clegg is another proponent of density — even if in her case, it has meant coming closer to noisy neighbors, like a performer for Opera Idaho who once lived in a nearby accessory dwelling unit.

“We got to listen to him practice his arias, and that was a wonderful way to wake up on a Saturday morning,” she said.

Sometimes called mother-in-law apartments, the living spaces are created by renovating an existing living area, attic or a garage, like the one that Mayor David Bieter built behind his house. In the small one-bedroom space above his new garage, built after the previous one burned down, Bieter has hosted relatives stopping through town as well as students.

The new ordinance is “a great step forward,” he said.

Leslie Webb has wondered about offering the “mother-in-law” living space above her family’s garage as an Airbnb or apartment for rent. To limit even more traffic in an already congested neighborhood, she and her husband ultimately decided against either option. Darin Oswald Darin Oswald

The change is part of the city’s Grow Our Housing initiative, which focuses on providing more housing at all income levels, in part by maximizing land uses and increasing density.

All that talk of density has some residents worried about the changing character of Boise’s single-family neighborhoods. With density could come traffic, too, which some residents worry would flood neighborhoods with more cars where parking is already hard to find.

But on Tuesday night, not a single critic of relaxing regulations on accessory dwellings made a peep. No one testified at the public hearing before the council’s vote.

“The fact that nobody is here to testify is a testament to how well staff did to getting this proposal out and vetting it,” Bieter said.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Councilwoman Holli Woodings lived in an accessory dwelling unit during college. In fact, it was a friend’s apartment, not hers.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman

Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.