Sharayah Jimenez was trying to figure out how to pack her own growing family and her nana into the house her mother left them.

Her mom had cared for her nana in the 5-bedroom, 3-bathroom house in the Bravo Park neighborhood on the South Side of Tucson before she died. Now, with Sharayah and her family moving in to care for nana they’d outgrown the house.

As an architect, Sharayah could see what to do — carve out an 800-square-foot apartment for her nana, so everyone could have their own space. She crunched the numbers and realized she could afford it. But when she talked to the city about her plans, “it was all nos,” she says.

“I just couldn’t believe how difficult it was,” she says. “I felt like it was such a simple, straightforward solution. It should be really easy to do.”

How to get started on a casita project

• To learn more and get help applying for the gap grant, email info@pcclt.org or call 520-603-0587 ext. 121. 

• See a city worksheet about casita project requirements.

• To learn more about Cuadro Design, visit Cuadro.Design.

She didn’t take no for an answer. Sharayah got involved in a stakeholder group to make changes to city rules about casitas.

In December 2021, after a months-long process, the Tucson City Council voted to allow casitas on residential property. Casitas also go by the name Accessory Dwelling Units or granny flats.

Now Sharayah is part of a Tucson project that is offering grants to help local low-income homeowners afford to build a secondary casita on their own lot.

Allowable casitas are 650-1,000 square feet depending on the size of the lot, have their own kitchen and bathroom, and meet other city requirements.

These tiny homes are meant to help address housing inequity in a few ways:

  • Increasing the number of smaller, less expensive units available to rent,
  • Increasing density in urban neighborhoods,
  • And subtly fighting gentrification by allowing more people to make money from their property or extend the number of family members who can live on the property to stay instead of selling to investors.

Not many casita projects are underway yet. Even with a tiny project, the city permit process can take up to six months and then construction can take another six months. 

So the nonprofit Pima County Community Land Trust is offering gap financing grants to help homeowners get projects going.

For land trust executive director Maggie Amado-Tellez, it comes down to the question, “How do we empower people to benefit from their home’s worth?”

In some of Tucson’s older barrios and BIPOC neighborhoods, many people are house rich and cash poor, she says. When someone dies or a family can’t afford repairs, they’re sometimes left feeling like selling their home is their only option. 

“We’ve got these investors and speculators circling like vultures, waiting to take advantage of someone’s misfortune,” Amado-Tellez says. “They are taking the wealth out of these communities and changing the character of the neighborhood.”

Casitas empower people to use the land they own, either to house a family member or to make some money from renting it out, she says. 

Who is trying to make it easier to build casitas?

The Pima County Community Land Trust creates affordable homeownership opportunities. The nonprofit was started during a previous housing crisis in 2010, when foreclosures were sweeping the city, as a way to distribute neighborhood stabilization funds to purchase and resell foreclosed homes to low-income and moderate-income families. The group has recently started developing small-scale, new-construction affordable housing projects too. 

During the pandemic, the land trust saw a need for casitas as adult kids moved home and homeowners looked to casitas as potential cash flow to augment their income, Amado-Tellez says.

The land trust partnered with some local architects, including Sharayah, who is the principal designer at Cuadro Design. She’s been drawing casita plans and taking them through the city’s permitting process so plans are approved and a homeowner would just need to do a site plan to get started on a casita project, speeding it up and making it less expensive to build.

A rendering of one of the plans Tucson architect Sharayah Jimenez is developing for the Mi Casita Program. Credit: Courtesy of Cuadro.Design

The plans show small, contextual, simple casitas, Sharayah says, “all the things that are great about traditional barrio architecture in Tucson.” 

She says homeowners can take her basic plans and make them their own with colors, finishes, porch styles and window features, “and do what Tucsonans always do — make super cute Southwest architecture.”

Once the city’s rules changed last year, Sharayah got busy.

In the 2009 recession, she recalls most of the homes on her street had adult kids moving back in. She noticed it again during the pandemic. She started getting calls from people saying they needed extra room because their homes were maxed out. 

“The market I’m serving is underserved and underestimated,” she says. “I can’t believe the demand.”

Sharayah has been working on different plan sets for some new builds and has a few projects on the books with people in similar situations as hers.

“To see the need and be able to respond has been very rewarding,” Sharayah says, tearing up.

Architect Sharayah Jimenez has designed casita plans for homeowners to use as a jumping off point. Credit: Michael McKisson, Arizona Luminaria

Where does the money come from?

The money for the casitas grants flowed from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, an economic stimulus program, to the city and then to the nonprofit Pima County Community Land Trust and next to homeowners.

The grant program is about $150,000 and realistically can help about eight families for now, although another round of grant funding could come this fall, Amado-Tellez says.

The land trust needs to distribute the grant money in the next seven months.

How does the grant program work?

The land trust can help people learn whether they qualify and can help homeowners navigate the complicated process.

To qualify, the homeowner must apply using their primary residence and they must live on the property and meet income limits based on household size.

Here’s an example of how the funding could come together. For a casita project that costs $60,000, the homeowner would need to contribute $40,000 of their own funds (from savings or a loan) and the land trust would provide gap financing of $20,000. That money is paid to the project’s general contractor, not directly to the homeowner.

The project has to follow all of the city’s rules, “with permits and the whole enchilada,” Amado-Tellez says. The land trust can help people navigate all of it. 

If the casita will be used as a rental, it must additionally qualify as a unit of affordable housing. For example, a one-bedroom unit could be rented for $761 a month to a tenant to meet this criteria.

The details and the rules are important. But it’s the feel of the home and the family living there that often matter most.

Growing up in Tucson, Sharayah’s grandfather was a builder and her dad was in the trades. They encouraged her to become an architect.

“I wanted to contribute to my city being a more beautiful place,” she says.

They also passed down traditional knowledge, like how to design for cross-breezes for cool, passive ventilation and how to orient buildings for the Arizona sun. Things Sharayah would want to build for her own house with nana and for anyone making Tucson home.

Becky Pallack

Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.