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California’s housing market is overburdened. Loosening laws on ‘granny flats’ can help

How this new second unit is working out for homeowners and tenants in Sacramento

Kristina and Steven Dake, the first tenants of Dov Kadin and Tawny Macedo's new accessory dwelling unit in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood, move in on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. The city is encouraging these units to increase affordable housing.
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Kristina and Steven Dake, the first tenants of Dov Kadin and Tawny Macedo's new accessory dwelling unit in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood, move in on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. The city is encouraging these units to increase affordable housing.

With more millennials projected to be in the market for homes over the next decade and a senior population that is expected to grow more rapidly than the state average during that period, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as granny flats, provide a less-costly alternative for house hunters on both ends of the age spectrum.

ADUs are a form of infill that take advantage of under-used space in a home or backyard and represent the low-hanging fruit for cities seeking a quick and inexpensive way to increase housing. They are equipped with their own kitchens, bathrooms and entrances. They can be basement apartments, backyard cottages, garage conversions or upstairs additions.

As supporters of ADUs who have promoted their expansion in California, we are pleased by the progress resulting from the legislative reforms that went into effect in 2017. Applications from homeowners wanting to build these units are up in many cities across the state.

Opinion

But we recognize the need for legislation like Senate Bill 13 that will further reduce development impact fees, eliminate restrictive owner occupancy requirements for five years, enable homeowners to bring existing unpermitted units up to code and strengthen oversight of city and county ordinances by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

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Lorie Leilani Shelley

Far too many Californians are being squeezed out of the housing market. College graduates,

burdened by a heavy student debt load

, are entering the market later, and seniors want to

age in place

, not in a care home. Locally, and across the state, the

ranks of the homeless

continue to grow.

We need an all-of-the-above approach to housing, building more homes, apartments and condos to increase the supply. ADUs, though, can be built more quickly and without any government subsidy. And the space already exists. You need look no farther than your garage. By moving cars out of the garage, and converting the space into an apartment unit, boomerang kids, relatives or a caregiver can have a new living space of their own. In a housing crisis, shouldn’t we focus on housing people rather than cars?

This can be accomplished without altering the exterior dimensions of the main dwelling. It’s an efficient way to provide someone a home in an existing community that already has all the amenities in place, amenities that the homeowner already paid for in developer impact fees tied to the main home.

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By converting a garage to an ADU or building a small cottage in the backyard, homeowners can generate rental income that provides much-needed financial security, especially for seniors who may be house rich but cash poor.

After the initial reforms of 2017 eliminated some barriers to accessory dwelling units, such as exorbitant sewer connection fees and some parking requirements, more cities began to proactively work with homeowners, creating pre-approved designs and waiving other fees.

But other jurisdictions are still under the sway of NIMBY elements who decry a loss of neighborhood character. That is why SB 13 is needed. It reduces or eliminates the most common obstacles cited by the state Housing and Community Development Department.

Letting homeowners help us expand the housing supply by constructing ADUs will not only help the seniors who are leaving college and looking for a home, but it will help our senior citizens too as they consider their housing options in their golden years.

State Senator Wieckowski represents California’s 10th District. Vinit Mukhija is a professor and the department chair of Urban Planning at UCLA’S Luskin School of Public Affairs.

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