|A site plan for an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). Click to enlarge.|
There are a lot of good questions in life. Why did I just draw a site plan for an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) at 2 a.m., for example? That one's easy. My wife's about to give birth and who the hell can sleep at a time like that?
A better question would be, why is it so hard to get approval to build an ADU? These units would be a great way to add to the supply of housing in existing neighborhoods. An ADU could be a granny cottage to help take care of an aging parent, while maintaining a respectful amount of privacy. Assisted living is insanely expensive and therefore not an option for many families. An ADU could be a millennial cottage, a way for you to house your 25-year-old kid who is having trouble paying rent (in no small part because it's so hard to build housing) without both of you going insane. An ADU could be a way to earn some extra rental income to afford your increasingly unaffordable house. Building infill housing protects the environment by preventing the urbanization of greenfield sites at the edge of cities and by letting people live closer to where they work instead of driving in from 60 miles away where housing is relatively affordable. ADUs can be done in a way where they are not even really visible from the street (as shown above), thus maintaining the visual character of suburbia.
The answers to my rhetorical question are also well known to me. Many people are afraid of this kind of change. It's fear of loss of on-street parking, fear of loss of privacy, fear of noise, fear of renters, fear of traffic, etc. But friends, the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.
It's an excellent time to be thinking about these issues in California, since SB 1069 and AB 2299 will go into effect on January 1, 2017. I've written about the significance of these bills before. Long story short, they basically remove local discretion to deny ADUs when you apply for a permit to convert existing built space, which is a huge change. Local governments still retain broad authority to decide where new structures and additions that will become ADUs can go, and there's one very interesting point to be made there. If you go super-restrictive on new structures and additions, why wouldn't people just apply to convert their garages? Many people don't even use their garages as vehicle storage buildings, as zoning codes intend. I submit to you that an ADU like the one shown in the plan above would address community concerns about parking and neighborhood character better than a converted garage, since in this plan, the garage is maintained, and there's space on site to park about five cars in tandem. That would require local governments to buy into the spirit, not just the letter, of the new ADU laws.