Thursday, December 24, 2015

Santa Ana Says Yes to Granny Flats

Will America allow more adorable cottages for grandma . . . in the suburbs?
Photo copyright American Planning Association
Photo by Carolyn Torma, 2006

KPCC recently ran a story on the City of Santa Ana's efforts to ease restrictions on granny flats.  I'd like to spend a few minutes explaining what this means and why it is such an important topic for our society and its struggles with housing affordability and an aging population.  Like any important urban planning policy, this one is not without controversy.

California cities have land use plans and zoning codes that determine what uses of land are allowed in what areas and at what density or intensity.  This planning is the reason why you're not very likely to live near a noisy, smoke-belching factory as was common in 19th century industrial cities.  We're still less than 100 years out from the 1926 Euclid case in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of zoning regulations.  It's fair to say that the first century of zoning in America has been largely characterized by a move towards requiring a strict separation of land uses into residential, commercial and industrial zones and mandates for large areas of low-density zoning.  In a residential context, density is usually measured in dwelling units per acre.  One of the most common types of residential zoning is called R-1 (one-family residential).  R-1 zoning usually requires that there be no more than one dwelling unit on one piece of property.  Thus, higher density forms of housing like townhomes and apartments are not allowed in R-1 zones.

The New Urbanist critique of zoning is essentially that it is an over-correction.  If the 19th century industrial city was too dense and had too many bad mixtures of uses, the current suburban metropolises that zoning has created separate uses too much and make it too hard to build housing that is affordable to middle and lower income folk.  You don't have to live next to a factory, but you also can't walk to the corner store, you have to drive for most of your trips and housing is expensive because the higher density forms of housing that split the cost of land over many units are often illegal to build.  Expensive housing is great if you already own land, but not so great if you are a renter or first-time homebuyer.  Expensive housing makes communities more exclusive, less diverse, and therefore less interesting and less just places.

The idea of a granny flats or "accessory dwelling units" as they are formally called, is to take a property built with a single-family home and plop a second dwelling unit on it.  This approach has several advantages from an urbanist perspective.  For example:
  • The U.S. population is aging and granny flats allow for middle-aged people to take care of their elderly parents (or adult children) on their property while still allowing them a degree of privacy and independence.
  • Granny flats can be introduced into a suburban neighborhood in ways that do not change the look and feel of the neighborhood (e.g. one-story cottages in back yards).
  • Granny flats add badly needed housing in expensive metro areas like Greater Los Angeles, even for people who aren't grandma.
  • Granny flats add density, which is conducive to more frequent transit service and is a more efficient use of infrastructure like streets, sidewalks, etc.  If intelligently planned (i.e. located near commercial areas), the granny units can increase people's ability to walk to shops, services and jobs, which is good for the environment (less driving) and good for health (more exercise).
On the other hand, granny flats are not universally beloved.  Likely arguments against them would include:
  • Fears that they would lead to increased noise
  • Fears that they would lead to loss of privacy
  • Fears that they would make it harder to park on the street
  • Fears that they would introduce renters into a neighborhood (which is perceived by some as negative)
As cities consider whether granny flats are a good fit, they will have to take these fears into account.  In some places, the "no" argument will be politically stronger and prevent granny units from being allowed.  I think the pros of granny flats outweigh the potential cons, but I have some advice for people considering zoning changes to allow them:
  • Outreach is key.  You have to assume that some people will not be happy with granny flats and work to address their concerns as best you can.
  • Development standards can address concerns.  Although I don't like minimum parking requirements, requiring an extra parking space for granny flats could help convince people that they won't lead to "too many" cars on the street.  Development standards can also specify setbacks from property lines, height limits and floor area limits that can address concerns about privacy and noise.
  • Requiring a Conditional Use Permit, while too much red tape for my taste, can ensure that a public hearing will be held for each granny flat and that the structures can be removed if they violate reasonable conditions of approval.
  • Tell stories about the people that granny flats help.  Most people don't think about taking care of their aging parents until they are in that situation.  Once the situation hits, it can be a life-changing experience.  Many people who live in suburbia are practical and want to use their property to take care of their loved ones.  If it's not grandma, it's probably your adult child just back from college, trying to become financially independent.

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