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The Housing Dilemma in Pima County's Diamond Bell Ranch

Written by: Published on News Break


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Tucson's Housing Demand


The housing market in Tucson is as hot as a sidewalk in August, so buyers beware. When a house goes on the market, multiple offers stream in on the same day, says Dan Grammar, Executive Realty, Arizona Territory.


Families from California and the Pacific Northwest who built up equity and then sold their homes in higher-cost markets are drawn to a lower cost of living.


“They’re part of the reason that the inventory is scarce,” says Grammar, “but another reason are continued low interest rates.”


Buyers can afford to own a home for what they’d pay in rent.


News KOLD 13 labeled the city as an “extreme sellers’ market” in January and the trend is continuing. About a year ago, there were 3,000 homes listed for sale but now there are fewer than 1,400. The median home price in Tucson has risen 30% since mid-2020, according to a report on Roofstock.com and, in January, the Tucson Association of Realtors pegged the current median home price at $ 293,000.


The housing market is completely different less than an hour’s drive from downtown Tucson, along Highway 86 in Pima County.


Zoning Restrictions at Diamond Bell Ranch


Land is plentiful at the never-developed Diamond Bell Ranch. A search in late March on Realtor.com showed 46 listings for the area and 41 of those listings were for vacant lots.


Sandra Cantu, owner of Cantu Land Plus, sees the land as a solution to ease the region’s lack of homes on the market and provide for affordable housing. She’s an advocate for living in manufactured and modular homes, but decades-old zoning laws stand in the way.


"I've had many people inquire about the land that I have for sale there," says Cantu, "but they want to put a manufactured home on a lot. Legally, they can't and it kills the sale."

Diamond Bell Ranch is rural, with slightly more than 800 residents living in a sea of open land. Yet it’s zoned CR-1 like the bustling suburbia that it never became.


The area was originally designed to be a planned community similar to Saddlebrooke and developments near Green Valley, says life-long Tucson area resident Marion Mitchell who produced a YouTube video using a drone to give a thorough birds-eye view and show the acres of vacant land.


“In the mid to late 70's when Diamond Bell was first offered the road out there,” says Mitchell, “It was a narrow, two-lane, poorly maintained adventure to get out there.”

Lots were sold, but improvements didn’t happen.


And, says Carla Blackwell, Development Services Director, the county isn’t in a position to make changes.


“The problem is that the developers sold these lots and then improvements never happened. Every so often, the manufactured home industry goes to the [Pima County] board of supervisors, but, according to state law, only the owners can make changes and then the supervisors can approve code changes.”


Blackwell, who helped lead Pima Prospers, the county’s long-range plan, noted that there is no uniform homeowners association, so restrictions against manufactured homes remain in effect.


Changing the Reputation of Manufactured Homes


Today’s manufactured homes, known as mobile homes in the 1970s and 80s, are made to standards that rival site-built homes, including the use of 2x4s and 2x6s in the walls. Roofs with low slopes are properly vented and amenities include the latest appliances. Homes can range in size from several hundred square feet and up to 2,900 feet to fit a large family.


A Diamond Bell resident who purchased her lots from Cantu, Kate Brown, owns three lots and can’t see any neighboring homes. She moved from North Carolina to Tucson to be near her brother who had become ill. She’d prefer a modular home, but, again, those zoning laws say no.


However, a tiny home is just fine.


“It’s a structure built on a trailer, but it’s not necessarily cheap. Costs can range from $ 75,000 to $ 100,000 by the time all is said and done.”


She plans to live off-grid like other residents.


“I’ll use solar for electricity since the closest utility line is a quarter-mile away. Water can be trucked in and I’ll put up shade structures to protect against as much of the summer sun as I can.”


Kate says she’d be fine with neighbors living in manufactured homes.


The Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) has published reasons in favor of the lower-cost housing units, saying they’re “built with quality construction to meet rigorous federal standards for safety, installation and construction.”


Forget the mobile homes of the 1960s and 1970s. The MHI notes that the design includes “luxury bathrooms and state-of-the-art kitchens with energy-efficient appliances.”

A multi-section manufactured home without land can typically cost around $ 89,500 compared to site-built homes costing over $ 286,000, not including the cost of land.

Cantu, also an owner in Diamond Bell Ranch, is an advocate for living in manufactured homes as primary residences. She sees their potential and has a vision but remains frustrated by zoning laws that were in put into effect for the area more than 50 years ago.


She has spoken to several sources, including zoning officials and local residents, who say that all it takes is one homeowner in the site-built cluster of over 800 residents to object to the use of manufactured homes. Then Pima County Development Services will side with the homeowner and not allow the rezoning.


The original plan for a modern, thriving community continues with zoning restrictions that were originally meant for a modern community, yet Cantu is among those who say they’re keeping Diamond Bell in a dusty, rural past.



Photos by Daquota Avila (Diamond Bell Ranch homes) and Kate Brown (landscape, bottom)