Rachel Ginis says small housing units built in people’s backyards can achieve a whole range of goals.
She explains that these accessory dwelling units (ADUs), as they’re known, can combat gentrification and create an investment opportunity for low-income homeowners, all while helping the environment. If it sounds like she’s overpromising, policy wonks like Ginis—an advisor to the housing advocacy group Hello Housing—are happy to break down the benefits of these units, which often amount to garage conversions. She explains that building new units helps meet housing demand (thereby slowing down steadily climbing rents) and lets a homeowner add value to their house and grow their income (by building a new housing unit and getting a new tenant). Lastly, it lets workers live closer to their jobs (reducing commutes, thereby cutting emissions).
But on a recent Zoom call to discuss the role of ADUs in housing policy, longtime county employee Dave Reid asked about a more immediate need. Reid—who works for the Office of Response, Resilience and Recovery, managing the rebuild from recent fires—asked if ADUs could play a role in coming back from a natural disaster.
As it happens, Ginis, who was on the call, played a role in helping her home county of Sonoma with the rebuild after the devastating fires of 2017, as a senior project manager. As part of the recovery, she helped rebuild several homes, and five of them included ADUs. “It’s a huge opportunity,” she told GT after the call ended. “Savvy people are thinking about this.”
Ginis explains that, when a homeowner has an extra housing unit on site, that can allow them to downsize without having to move anywhere. Ginis has an ADU on her Sonoma County property. She rents it out to a man who works in the community and is going to school to be a physician’s assistant.
Sustainable Research Systems Foundation, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit, organized last week’s ADU call. The foundation has launched a campaign to encourage policy changes and allow for more ADU construction across Monterey Bay.
Architect Mark Primack, a former Santa Cruz city councilmember, says that the city of Santa Cruz used to be a leader in the ADU space, paving the way for residents to convert their garages into living spaces.
But over the past decade, progress has lagged, Primack explains. That happened, mind you, despite California’s housing reforms—aimed at stemming the state’s housing affordability crisis by making local governments approve more ADUs, sometimes colloquially known as granny flats or in-law units. In recent years, Los Angeles Times housing journalist Liam Dillon has pushed the term “casita” as an alternative moniker for the small housing units. (A new grassroots group lobbying for more ADUs has dubbed itself Casita Coalition, in a nod to Dillon’s prodding.)
According to numbers requested by GT, Santa Cruz has approved more ADUs in the past five years than any of the county’s four other local governments, and the number of permits issued has trended upward over the past five years. But over that span, even Santa Cruz saw a peak last year when it granted a total of only 64 ADU permits for construction.
Primack says Santa Cruz should do everything it can to bring down permitting costs and to make the building codes for ADUs less restrictive. The last ADU he designed was a few years ago; it cost the property owner $400,000 to build, he says. The cost makes them more expensive to live in as well. Although state law has streamlined parts of the process and eliminated many parking requirements, local planners still have a lot of discretion in what they allow to move forward and what they don’t, Primack says.
“It’s just not worth it for people to build ADUs,” he says.
The recent Zoom call also drew attention from Santa Cruz city planners.
In it, Santa Cruz city planner Sarah Neuse asked Ginis and another presenter if they’ve had any success in bringing down construction costs, as that is one of the barriers to building ADUs.
Ginis said she has not. Construction costs are going up in Sonoma County as well. What she and Hello Housing have been doing is advocating for legislative reforms and creating new ways of financing to make these small homes easier to build.
She knows that outside investors would be interested in partnering with single-family homeowners to build units on their properties. That is a route Ginis wants to avoid. Ginis wants to see small-town homeowners retain some of their independence.
“I do not want this to be an investors’ opportunity to just get investors and industry into the single-family housing space. To me, that’s game over—like the end of the game of Monopoly,” she says.
Some California cities do offer financing options to homeowners who want to build ADUs. Just last week, the city of San Jose unveiled a pilot program to provide a 0% interest loan to finance 100% of the costs associated with permitting and building an ADU.
ADUS IT OR LOSE IT
As part of its advocacy, the environmental nonprofit Sustainable Systems Research Foundation is pushing for a variety of local environmental reforms.
They include plans for increasing the availability of solar energy, growing urban gardens, cutting down on plastic waste and improving environmental education. The foundation also has a big housing idea, built around ADUs. Emeritus environmental professor Ronnie Lipschutz, the nonprofit’s founder, says it may be worthwhile to create a new organization to advocate specifically for the construction of ADUs in Monterey Bay.
The momentum around ADU construction continues to build across the state. Californians may now actually build two ADUs on their properties, including junior ADUs. These junior ADUs don’t have to be standalone structures. They usually involve cordoning off one part of the house—like a master bedroom, for instance—and building an additional kitchen.
Meanwhile, other large possible housing changes are afoot. The state legislature is weighing a proposal to end single-family zoning by allowing residents to build duplexes and quadruplexes throughout single-family zoned areas. The city of Berkeley, the inventor of single-family housing, has already taken steps to eliminate the zoning area in its city limits. Journalists, activists and city leaders there have cited the institution’s racist and exclusionary history as a tool to keep out low-income Californians and people of color.
Lipschutz says one reason that incentivizing ADUs makes for smart policy is that they generate less community opposition than larger multi-family developments do.
There’s an irony to the conclusion that fascinates me. Lipschutz isn’t wrong. I’ve watched enough government meetings to know that—in the eyes of neighborhood organizers—a multi-story development looks overbearing, whereas increased ADU construction sounds interesting and quaint. I’m not suggesting their inherent potential is nothing to sneeze at. If local governments began quadrupling the number of ADUs approved, that would create more housing.
Still, absent some creative financing programs, ADUs would not create deeply affordable units designed to house Santa Cruz’s most vulnerable struggling renters. That’s the kind of housing that’s most difficult to fund. It is also the kind that the state of California requires of local governments to hit targets for a given amount of affordable housing units. This is a role normally filled by multi-family housing developments.
It’s a given that small ADUs spread throughout a residential area will have very few impacts—e.g. traffic or parking—on a neighborhood. But the impact from the conversion of a strip mall into an apartment complex might be even smaller. After all, such a project may be near homes, but it’s literally in a different zone on the city’s zoning map, outside of residential neighborhoods altogether.
The point here is not to pretend that Santa Cruz should—or would—prioritize one housing supply tool over another.
But I ask Lipschutz why he thinks ADUs generate less opposition than multifamily housing does.
“If you’re building something that’s mixed-income, people start to complain, and the plan gets opposition,” he says. “It’s hard to know exactly what to make of those complaints and how real they are, but it’s there. ADUs are lower-profile. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be opposition, but it does mean they have a smaller footprint, and eventually, they basically just become invisible.”
For more information about Sustainable SystemsResearch Foundation, visit sustainablesystemsfoundation.org. Also, May is Affordable Housing Month. For more information, visit housingsantacruzcounty.com.