Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fate of Bold Granny Cottage Bills to be Decided by Governor Brown

I've been closely following twin bills which just passed the California Legislature and are being considered by Governor Brown: SB 1069 (Wieckowski) and AB 2299 (Bloom).  The fate of these bills will be decided by the Governor sometime before the end of September.  Whatever decision is made will have significant consequences for California's affordable housing crisis.  Actually, "crisis" is a bit of an understatement.  I think "cri-tastrophe-pocalypse-ageddon" is a more appropriate term.  In our state, 57.2% of renters spend 30% or more of their income on housing and 45.7% of homeowners with a mortgage spend 30% or more of their income on housing (2010-2014 American Community Survey, "Selected Housing Characteristics").  30% is the maximum considered affordable by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development!

These bills are super significant because they would require local governments to say yes to "accessory dwelling units" that are proposed to be created out of the existing space of a house or accessory structure (e.g. a detached garage), as long as those units go through the typical process of building plan check (to show that they will comply with Building Code requirements for habitable space) and getting permits/inspections.  The bills would also put a cap on minimum off-street parking requirements for accessory dwelling units (max. requirement of one space per unit or one space per bedroom).  The other super-critical thing is that the bills would allow uncovered tandem parking on a driveway to count towards any parking requirements (meaning most suburban homes would be able to easily comply, even if the garage is converted).  But wait, there's more, because the bill also prohibits parking requirements for accessory dwelling units in many cases, including where the property is located within 1/2 mile of transit or when the unit is part of the existing space of a house or accessory building.

To take an example, let's say you have a single-family home with a detached garage in your back yard.  Your parents are getting older and having trouble living on their own.  You'd like to take care of them, but having them live in your house would diminish their privacy and sense of dignity.  Nursing homes are expensive, and perhaps you feel that they are too impersonal.  Your garage is filled with junk and you never park in it.  You decide you want to convert your garage to a granny cottage.

You go to the city in which you live and talk to a planner to find out how to get started.  The planner tells you that converting the garage is not allowed.  Your property is zoned single-family residential.  The zoning code requires a two-car garage for your property.  The zoning code also prohibits having more than one dwelling unit on your property.  Since you are amazingly well informed, you ask "but doesn't California have a law allowing second dwelling units?"  The planner responds, "yes, but that law allows cities to pass an ordinance deciding where those units are allowed.  Our particular ordinance does not allow second units on your lot."  You go home, more than a little pissed off, and start planning on sending your folks to assisted living.

If SB 1069 and AB 2299 pass, that conversation will be very different.

You go to the city in which you live and talk to a planner to find out how to get started.  The planner tells you that thanks to recent changes in state law, your idea to convert your garage to a granny cottage can be approved, and that no additional parking is required.  You just need to have plans prepared to show how you will convert the garage to habitable space, run them through Building and Safety, get permits, build the conversion and call for inspections.  You go through the process, and the garage that used to store your junk, is now a safe and dignified, albeit modest, granny cottage providing housing for your parents, the people who brought you into this world, and who now need your help in the twilight of their own lives.

Look, I know there is another side to this story.  These bills would be a significant change from the status quo.  The other side will argue that reducing local authority to regulate second units will lead to too many people parking on the street, increased noise and loss of privacy.  This argument essentially boils down to a desire to preserve the suburban lifestyle: one house per lot and ample, free parking on the street.  People work hard to buy their house, so why should they have to put up with more urban conditions in their suburban neighborhood?  When grandma passes away, won't that "granny cottage" just go to some renter who didn't have what it takes to make it into the neighborhood the right way?  Won't that erode the social fabric of the community?  Won't that increase the risk of crime?  Haven't local governments traditionally been empowered to decide what land use regulations are best for them?  Why are these elitists in Sacramento trying to force feed us "smart growth?"  These kinds of arguments have been made by the League of California Cities.  Even the California Chapter of the American Planning Association has been lobbying to preserve more of cities' traditional authority to impose parking requirements.

I believe the affordable housing crisis in California has gotten so bad that the Legislature is starting to claw back parts of the land use regulatory authority it has traditionally given to local governments.  I see these bills as a continuation of that trend.  At the end of the day, it comes down to values.  Do you value increasing housing opportunities more than you value preserving the "traditional" conception of suburban life?  Is protecting natural habitat from new development an important enough goal that you are willing to allow more dense development in areas that are already urbanized?

Granny cottages aren't the only possible solution.  If we had more full-blown infill development in certain areas it would be easier to leave more of suburbia as it is.  Yet this denser kind of infill development often faces strong opposition from existing homeowners, and sometimes even from renters.

For my part, it's an easy choice.  Grandma wins.  That's why affordable housing advocates, business groups, AARP, and regular people trying to take care of their parents all over our state have backed these bills, which have passed with over 2/3 majorities in both houses of the Legislature.  Get in touch with Governor Brown today and a tell him to sign SB 1069 and AB 2299.

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