Council Considers Limiting Building of ‘Granny Flats’

Times Staff Writer

Owners of La Canada Flintridge’s smaller parcels of land will have to seek alternatives to “granny flats,” second housing units built on single-family lots, if the City Council passes a proposal recently approved by the Planning Commission.

The council will consider a proposed ordinance restricting construction of second-unit homes to lots larger than 15,000 square feet when it meets July 17. The Planning Commission voted 4 to 1 in favor of the proposal June 26.

The proposal is designed to preserve the city’s “semi-rural, low-density residential character,” said Craig Ewing, senior planner for the city.

State guidelines say that local governments cannot completely prohibit building of granny flats and that cities can only limit the size of the second housing units to no less than 642 feet.


The proposed ordinance would end a period in which there were no local restrictions on such units.

But Ewing said that allowing unlimited building of such units “would not be consistent with our view of the semi-rural character” of La Canada Flintridge, a city made up predominantly of single-unit lots.

Commissioner Judy Breitman, sole dissenter in the planners’ vote, said the proposal works against the city’s small lot owners. “There’s a problem in making an arbitrary size restriction between the haves and have-nots,” she said. “It’s one more restriction than we needed.”

Senior Citizen Housing


Granny flats are housing built in addition to a lot’s main housing unit. State law specifies that such housing can exist as long as it is used to house senior citizens.

The Planning Commission proposal also says lot owners must provide sufficient parking for second-unit occupants. Owners must meet separate land-coverage specifications to add second units.

A 1983 study by the Greenbelt Alliance (formerly People for Open Spaces), a San Francisco think tank that examines affordable housing alternatives, estimated that there are between 500,000 and 3 million granny flats in the country. A more accurate estimate is impossible because most of the existing units are illegal, with second units serving as income-generating rentals, according to the alliance.

Counting the number of such flats in the city is difficult.


“The answer is that, technically, there are none, but we know there are some guest houses that have been illegally converted,” said Ewing, who prepared the proposal. “Bootleg houses are out there.”

Those in favor of the ordinance believe that crowding La Canada Flintridge is a threat to the city’s desirability and livability. Ewing said there is no way of saying whether granny flats hurt property values.

‘Two-Edged Sword’

“It’s a two edged-sword,” he said. “Some feel a second-unit home next door will drop their values and those building one on their property think it will raise theirs.”


Mayor Pro Tem Chris Valente said second-unit housing can be built in the city.

“I personally don’t think it would have a negative effect. I’m convinced it could be done tastefully,” said Valente, who added that his home is built on 2 1/2 acres. “A lot of us are well-off, but what about those who don’t have a really big lot?”

Estimating broadly and pointing out that no surveys breaking lots down by size have been done, Ewing said more than half of the lots in the city are under 15,000 feet. He said lots in the foothills and the Flintridge section of the city are larger while lots near Foothill Boulevard are smaller.

In preparing the proposal, planners studied similar communities in the San Gabriel Valley and Los Altos and Saratoga in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ewing said. Public input and La Canada Flintridge’s existing housing ordinances were also taken into consideration in drawing up the proposed ordinance, he said.


It is possible that a portion of La Canada Flintridge seniors may not qualify for granny flats due to the size of their lots, Ewing said, but added, “We draw the line a number of ways you can use land in the city.”

The proposal stipulates that all second-unit housing occupants must be at least 60 years old.

Valente said senior citizens in the community could be hurt by excess restrictions on construction of granny flats.

“Keep in mind that there are a lot of old people here who built this community,” he said. “They don’t want to leave.”