Letter To The Editor: The Tragedy Of The Commons, Part II

Los Alamos

Ralph Chapman recently observed that the intensification of residential uses in existing single-family residential areas that is currently being advocated by the Community Development Department (CDD) and some members of the Planning and Zoning Commission perfectly illustrates the “tragedy of the commons.” I couldn’t agree more.

The CDD introduced this intensification into the discussion of the Comprehensive Plan when it salted the recent survey with questions about the use of “casitas,” “granny houses,” or “guest houses” to ease the supposed (undocumented) shortage of affordable housing for the elderly, retirees, and lab interns. It then “framed” the discussion in a public meeting by elaborating on the need for these “accessory dwelling units” to meet the “demand” for affordable housing. In the framing, CDD also introduced a new seed: “short-term rentals” (think AIRBNB, HomeAway, VRBO, etc.).

Casitas: I asked a CDD representative to describe the criteria they would use to determine whether an accessory dwelling unit would be allowed on a single family residential lot. I asked that question because I know the CDD has recently argued that such a unit need not meet the standards for a dwelling unit, but only the much relaxed criteria that apply to accessory structures such as the tool sheds many of us have in our back yards.  CDD declined to answer my question because they thought it was “too much detail” for the audience. I think people who answered the survey questions and read the framing paper were misled by the lack of that annoying detail, and would probably be surprised to see just how many substandard housing units would be allowed into their neighborhoods under the rules as interpreted by CDD. 

Doubling the density of our single-family neighborhoods with substandard backyard  casitas will create slums. We should be trying to improve our neighborhoods, not trash them with cockamamie schemes like this.

STR’s: 32 out of the 59 largest cities in the U.S have already adopted regulations to prevent the abuses that come with the spread of STR’s (Short-Term Rentals). Neighbors, neighborhood associations, and even Realtors across the country are protesting the conversion of homes into de facto hotels, creating problems including parking, crowding, noise and other nuisance, party houses. Some cities have adopted regulations, some have negotiated regulations with the big guns like AIRBNB and VRBO. Elsewhere, STR’s and especially many independent STR’s, operate outside the law and pay no taxes. Ironically, considering the CDD argument to the contrary, this booming industry is blamed in many cities for removing affordable housing from the market as long-term rentals are converted into more lucrative short-term vacation houses. 

STR has taken root in Los Alamos. AIRBNB lists 11 clients in Los Alamos proper, some with more than one room. Our code has provisions for the regulation of bed-and-breakfasts, boarding houses, guest houses, and lodging businesses. Unfortunately the CDD and the legal department recently creatively interpreted that part of our code, once again, in such a way that businesses that are perfectly described by one or more of these definitions are considered “families” and so escape taxes, parking, and other regulations in the zoning codes. Boggles the mind, no?

So the tragedy is upon us, enabled by the CDD and blessed by the legal department. It’s clear to me that the CDD is determined to pursue this course by getting it into the comp plan and using that to justify changing the code to eliminate any barriers to the proliferation of casitas and short term rentals. One B&B or casita in a neighborhood is not such a calamity, if it meets the reasonable requirements that are in our code as they were meant to be applied. But as Ralph has pointed out, the tragedy of the commons teaches us that unregulated, these will spread until they choke the life out of the commons, and our neighborhoods will fail. We need to cut the head off this snake before it’s too late.