The following article was published in the The San Francisco Chronicle on April 19, 2019
The Bay Area faces no challenge more vexing or vast than the need to create hundreds of thousands of new housing units, at all price levels, in ways that don’t undermine the cultural and environmental traits that make this region so desirable.
The topic inflames local politics and is dissected by think tanks. Newcomers vent from one perspective, longtime residents from another. The crush of high housing prices forces families and young adults to pack up and leave, fraying connections with relatives and friends.
The problem can seem overwhelming. In many ways, it is — every partial remedy faces obstacles of its own.
There’s no better example of this than the complexities that cloud perhaps the least controversial option for creating new homes: putting a new apartment or two in an existing building or backyard.
Planners call them accessory dwelling units — ADUs for short. They’re widely known as granny flats or in-law units, and boosters tout them as a low-profile way to add density and relatively affordable housing to existing neighborhoods. State legislators have made them a priority, as have several Bay Area cities and counties.
Such efforts are paying off: 1,598 such units were approved in 2017, the latest year for which full regional numbers are available, compared with 434 in 2016. There’s a push in Sacramento to remove many of the remaining bureaucratic obstacles to their construction, which could send the numbers higher still.
But to put these numbers in context, a recent study on behalf of Bay Area housing advocates suggests that the region needs to build 525,000 units during the next 15 years. And while supporters have argued for years that backyard cottages and garage conversions can become a major source of supply, government officials grappling with the housing crisis on a daily basis aren’t prepared to go nearly that far.
“There’s no one answer to the problem — we need to apply a whole bunch of strategies,” said Darin Ranelletti, the director of housing policy for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “But every little bit helps.”
Nick Wolf’s snug modern cottage shows the appeal of accessory dwelling units. Margie O’Driscoll’s empty garage shows why more people don’t build them.
Wolf is 28, a freelance photographer who at this time last year was living in a basement studio in his parents’ house in North Oakland. He was earning a decent income but saw few options in terms of where to go next.
“The studio was so dark it was making me depressed,” Wolf recalled one recent weekend, sitting in his new cottage beneath one of its two skylights. “I didn’t know what I was going to do — I’d been saving money, but I’d see friends of mine living in crappy $2,700 studios.”
Instead, Wolf now pays $1,250 monthly for a 650-square-foot cottage in his parents’ backyard. There’s a home office as well as a bedroom and a combined living-dining room with a dining nook, a five-burner stove and a built-in hutch designed to showcase his turntable and two shelves of vinyl.
The L-shape structure replaced an informal garden. It was designed by Carrie Shores, an architect Wolf met through his work, and built by a contractor she recommended who specializes in ADUs. The process took 18 months, start to finish. Wolf’s parents refinanced their home to fund the project, which cost roughly $350,000; Wolf’s rent pays the monthly mortgage.
For Wolf’s parents, the attraction is that they might want to move into the cottage when they’re older, swapping places with Nick if he has a family and chooses to stay. For Nick, it’s a light-filled home with a bit of privacy.
“I feel very spoiled, very lucky,” he said. “It’s unbelievable I can live in a place like this.”
O’Driscoll and her husband had the same impulse as Wolf’s parents: to provide housing for their children. Their experience in San Francisco didn’t go nearly as well.
The couple own the top floor of a duplex near Dolores Park in the Mission District, with a garage and another couple below them. The neighbors have college-age children, as does O’Driscoll. The two couples decided in 2016 to try to turn the garage and a storage space into a pair of ADUs.
Two and a half years later, after detailed back-and-forths with five city agencies over topics like unit layout and soil testing — each requiring more payments to more consultants — the two couples decided the project would be too formidable.
“We wanted to create an opportunity for our kids to stay in San Francisco,” O’Driscoll said. Not only did the expected costs double during the review process, “innumerable, often conflicting regulations from multiple city departments exhausted us.”
Different as they are, these experiences show the extent to which ADUs are inseparable from individual lives. Unlike developers, who build structures for a living, homeowners deciding to build another unit on their property enter an unknown realm.
That burden was especially daunting before the state passed legislation in 2017 that said, among other things, that off-street parking for an additional unit wasn’t needed if there was transit nearby. At the same time, some cities started loosening their controls on accessory units, rather than treating them like typical single-family homes.
These changes made a difference for Tim Quinn and his wife, Sarah Hinds, who live in Oakland and in 2015 explored replacing their dilapidated garage with a new structure that could serve as a detached apartment. Confronted by zoning that called for a 20-foot setback from the property line for new structures, and an extra parking space, they gave up.
Then the state law passed. Oakland shrank its required setback to 5 feet. The couple took a deep breath.
Even with the code changes, there’s room for only a 475-square-foot unit in their backyard. An unusual foundation was required to protect the mature cedar and oak trees on the site. But construction started last fall and should be finished next month.
“We’re definitely experiencing decision fatigue at this point,” Quinn said. “You start writing checks, there’s a lot of trepidation. But now we’re getting excited.”
Whatever individuals think about accessory dwelling units, many politicians embrace the concept.
CASA, a Bay Area-wide alliance of government, civic and business leaders organized by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, makes the case that as many as 300,000 of the units could be added to the Bay Area without a noticeable increase in density. This would be a big chunk of the 525,000 housing units that CASA — a sort-of acronym for the Committee to House the Bay Area — says the region needs to build during the next 15 years.
Besides the numerical increase, the group’s CASA Compact states that clearing the regulatory hurdles to secondary units could bring “a rapid increase in more affordable homes and would help stabilize cost-burdened homeowners by creating a new source of income.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed has proposed eliminating all city fees on such units, a change that could trim development costs an estimated 8 to 10 percent. Last summer, she ordered five city departments to clear the backlog of nearly 900 ADU applications that existed at the time, a task completed in March.
San Mateo County, meanwhile, has established a website that includes a calculator showing what it might cost to build a secondary unit in each of the county’s 21 cities. You put in such details as the desired size, standard of construction and whether your lot is flat or sloped. The calculator estimates your monthly income after expenses and how long it might take to earn back your initial investment.
At the state level, the 2017 legislation has been followed each year by new efforts to make things more straightforward.
One bill this year would bar cities and counties from charging impact fees for cottages smaller than 750 square feet. Another would bar minimum lot sizes, which some cities use to quash backyard units without actually saying so. A third proposed change would allow construction of any residential structure that’s no more than 16 feet in height and 800 square feet.
“Adding secondary units is one of the fastest, cheapest, most affordable ways to build housing,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who has filed two bills that, if approved, would streamline the process. “Everything else we’re talking about, the process drags out for years. These can happen very quickly all around the state.”
But none of this means that cottages or garage conversions face an easy path.
In Berkeley, the one-page flow chart for the approval process shows 19 boxes connected by arrows and two lists with 12 additional points. San Francisco’s “process diagram” is two pages of arrows and diagrams culminating in a cheerful “Done! Your new unit is ready!”
Other cities cloud their requirements in the dense text of zoning codes. Piedmont’s guide to “frequently asked questions” on ADUs is a seven-page, single-spaced document.
Yet even if every city and county removed all bureaucratic confusion, individual homeowners would still face a project that makes remodeling a kitchen or bathroom look simple.
Many banks, for instance, are wary of giving a construction loan to someone who seeks to use future ADU rents to help finance the loan. Outside of such cities as Oakland or Berkeley, it can be difficult to find builders with a track record in such projects.
“The government piece is the first step,” said Heather Peters, a policy analyst in San Mateo County’s housing department. “It’s not the tipping point.”
Oakland’s Ranelliti agreed.
“Our initial regulatory reforms helped,” he said. “We’ve got to take it to the next step.”
Karen Chapple is a UC Berkeley professor in city and regional planning who has made the case for what she calls “discreet density” since 2010, when she built a 450-square-foot cottage in her Berkeley backyard.
Chapple is optimistic that cottages and garage conversions can enter the Bay Area mainstream. She and other supporters compare them to solar power — an alternative energy source that was touted for decades before gaining wide acceptance.
“Fifteen years ago, it was still rare to see solar panels on a house. Now people embrace them,” Chapple argued. “That’s how it will be with ADUs. You have to watch the neighbor build one to be comfortable that the idea makes sense.”
Advocates who have fought the fight in other regions aren’t so sure.
Kol Peterson lives in Portland, Ore., a city that Bay Area housing activists point to as a model because of the work it has done to make the creation of secondary units as painless and widespread as possible. He manages a website devoted to the fine points of ADU construction and policy, and has made presentations to planners in San Francisco and other cities.
In his most recent blog entry, Peterson analyzed how Portland, which approved fewer than three dozen ADUs annually between 2000 and 2009, has approved 1,863 during the past three years. It’s an impressive increase — but applications now appear to have leveled off.
“For all the work we’ve done up here to ease the process and remove barriers, it’s still a huge hassle to build an ADU,” Peterson said. “Only so many people are interested. At some point, you reach a threshold.”
This doesn’t mean that new backyard cottages or converted garages aren’t of value. We just shouldn’t ask them to do too much.
After all, the Bay Area is a region that, beginning in the 1960s, led the nation in efforts to stop ridgelines from being flattened for subdivisions or vineyards to be sacrificed for cul de sacs. Filling shallow waters along the bay to create development sites, the norm for a century, became taboo.
Ever-more-elaborate environmental reviews delayed and often thwarted building efforts. So did ballot initiatives by politically savvy activists.
These cultural forces are a big part of why today’s Bay Area offers such a rare blend of natural and urban attractions. Why it’s a destination not only for tourists, but ambitious visionaries who reinvigorate the regional economy again and again.
But it’s also why we’ve been the nation’s most expensive metropolitan region dating to the 1980s.
The difference now is that prices are so pervasively high — the pockets of affordability have all been picked. Virtually everyone agrees something must be done, though there’s no agreement as to what.
Within this framework, accessory dwelling units are appealing. They’re a noncontroversial safety valve as well as a humane way for people to live.
“Accessory units aren’t the silver bullet, but they’re part of the solution,” said David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s planning director. “They’re one small tool in a very large tool chest.”
That said, every tool is needed.
The Bay Area spent 50 years digging itself into this hole. It could take us a decade or more to show real progress in turning things around.