Commentary: Sweeping new laws will provide the gift of ‘granny flats’
With the arrival of the new year, new housing laws are taking hold in California, effectively ending the long-protected sanctity of single-family zoning.
Red tape has been cleared for homeowners to build not just one, but two accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, under ministerial approval from local governments.
ADUs, also called “granny flats,” offer cities an opportunity to develop new housing units that are not disruptive to the look and feel of single-family neighborhoods. ADUs are small by design and share a lot with the existing residence — often making them more affordable to renters than an apartment of comparable size. According to a 2017 report released by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, 58% of homeowners rent their ADUs below the market rate.
Until today, there has been a patchwork of state and local laws regulating ADUs, but nothing before has been so bold and comprehensive as Assembly Bills 68 and 881 — which passed in 2019 and took effect Jan. 1.
Every local government in California must now follow a new regulatory framework that includes these provisions and more:
- ADUs are allowed on most single-family lots, including one freestanding ADU and a “junior ADU” created within the square footage of the existing house.
- Fast-track, 60-day approvals for ADUs with no minimum lot size requirements and a maximum 4-foot setback from property lines
- Local governments cannot impose impact fees on ADUs under 750 square feet.
- HOAs, CC&Rs or neighborhood groups cannot prevent homeowners from building ADUs on single-family lots.
- Garage conversions are allowed without requiring replacement of any lost parking spaces.
- No owner-occupancy requirements allowed until Jan. 1, 2025
These laws supersede non-compliant local ordinances. In preparation, some cities took the initiative to embrace reform while preserving what little local control remains. On Dec. 17, the Costa Mesa City Council unanimously passed an urgency ordinance amending city code to include the full spectrum of changes required by new statewide ADU laws.
In making its ordinance compliant, Costa Mesa preserves its ability to control the implementation of these reforms, since otherwise the city “loses its ability to regulate ADUs,” as city Economic and Development Services Director Barry Curtis noted in December.
This break from California’s status quo on single-family housing was met with debate in Costa Mesa. Councilwoman Sandy Genis recounted the image of a nice house with a backyard and orange trees.
“That was the California dream” she said. “You could live in a single-family house. Now, we’re being told, ‘You need to cram more and more in.’”
Mayor Pro Tem John Stephens, however, voiced support for ADUs. He noted that while canvassing neighborhoods during election season, he was struck that “the majority of [Costa Mesa] residents and registered voters live in alternative living arrangements ... That’s the norm in Costa Mesa.”
For homeowners considering an ADU, regulatory barriers are reduced and fees lowered. For renters, these new laws can spur the development of more affordable housing opportunities. For cities, ADUs offer the possibility of creating new housing stock without the NIMBY push back that plays out in public hearings.
ADU residents also would add to the critical mass needed to support walkable, lively downtowns and activate key city corridors.
The magnitude of change needed to truly end our housing shortage exceeds what builders can produce in the short term. ADUs are an integral piece of the solution as Orange County grapples with a regional housing shortage, rapidly rising housing costs and increasing homelessness.
The 2020s are here and the ADU floodgates are open.
Cassius Rutherford is an assistant account manager at Consensus Inc. and a Parks, Arts & Community Services commissioner for the city of Costa Mesa. Elizabeth Hansburg is the co-founder and director of People for Housing Orange County and a planning commissioner for the city of Fullerton.
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