Thursday’s defeat of SB50, the state Senate bill that would have required cities to allow dense residential development near transit, shows how housing policy can be a flash point in California politics.
But state legislative efforts to spur new housing at a much different scale — one unit at a time, in the backyards of existing homes — have generated a multiyear string of bills that could end up making a sizable impact with relatively little fuss.
“I think we’re close to being good to go,” said Karen Chapple, director of the Center for Community Innovation at UC Berkeley. “The state can change policies incrementally, even when it can’t do the top-down stuff.”
Chapple, a planning professor, co-wrote a new report that monitors how local government has responded to a three-year series of bills involving accessory dwelling units — the bureaucratic term for what some people call granny flats or backyard cottages. There have been nearly a dozen bills in all, each aiming to help clear the regulatory obstacles that can keep homeowners from adding a second unit on their property.
The study, which includes research funded in part by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, suggests that many municipalities responded to the initial legislative push with a lack of enthusiasm. More than half didn’t update their local ordinances to conform to state expectations. Others updated their accessory dwelling policies — but also imposed building fees or minimum lot size requirements.
The bills that went into effect last month, however, bar cities and counties from charging fees to build granny flats that are 750 square feet or less. There’s no minimum backyard size for new units. No parking is required for cottages within one-half mile of a transit stop.
This year, evidence suggests that the steady procession of bills — coupled with debates in Sacramento about the need for local governments to take the state housing crisis seriously — is having an impact.
At the Department of Housing and Community Development, five staffers are involved in aspects of the accessory dwelling effort. This includes answering as many as 40 calls and emails a day seeking clarification on aspects of what is or isn’t allowed.
“In the past there would be occasional calls, nothing more,” said Paul McDougall, housing policy manager for the department. Accessory units “are much more on city radars as being part of local housing strategies. They definitely play a larger role.”
Danville, for instance, has put out a call to architects interested in designing plans for granny flats that could be preapproved by the city in three architectural styles. The idea is that by August, homeowners seeking to add backyard units to their homes could select a plan at the permit counter and be done with paperwork.
The emphasis on accessory dwellings “really seems different right now,” said Tai Williams, Danville’s assistant town manager. “I can’t recall all the buzz in prior years.”
In Marin, Corte Madera’s town council last month updated its accessory dwelling unit regulations. After several study sessions, a final version was approved on Jan. 20.
“When we first started the (update) process, we didn’t have a clear sense of where things were going,” said the town’s senior planner, Martha Battaglia. She said local officials strain to keep up with Sacramento’s annual edicts: “It’s challenging to keep on top of what’s going on — there’s been a lot of housing-related legislation” the past two years.
This top-down emphasis on finding cures for California’s housing crisis could explain why Chapple’s study found so many municipalities out of compliance, observers say.
“My gut feeling is that cities weren’t trying to stick their heads in the sand,” said Jason Rhine, legislative director of the League of California Cities. “What I’ve heard from our cities the most is, ‘Please stop changing the laws every year.’”
But by any measure, the backyard building boom is real. There were 360 approved in California’s largest cities in 2016, the year before the first regulatory reforms went into effect. The numbers for last year aren’t yet available, but in 2018 there were well over 5,000.
One early advocate for emphasizing backyard cottages was the Bay Area Council, a business organization.