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‘Granny units’ may be a big solution for California’s housing shortage

Commentary

Chris D. Craiker, AIA, NCARB, is a 40-year practicing architect and planner specializing in sustainable fire-wise construction. His Napa-based firm is Craiker Architects and Planners.

Read other NBBJ coverage about granny units.

As we face the new COVID-19 crisis, other statewide emergencies have not gone away.

For example, our acute housing shortage has not been reduced and the current shelter-in-place requirements have only made it harder to get new projects approved, let alone built. If anything, the housing shortage has gotten worse.

In 2018 California began evoking emergency accessory dwelling unit ordinances. ADUs, also called granny flats, are considered a grassroots method of creating more housing, one dwelling at a time, throughout the State without traditional municipal scrutiny. These laws applied to all conventional single-family lots to make it easier to gain permits while reducing local limitations, such as setbacks, design scrutiny or parking requirements.

This has produced about 5,000 units statewide, a mere trickle of the annual 150,000 new unit demand.

As 2019 ended, Sacramento passed two new laws — Assembly Bill 68 and AB 881 — that extend the ADU special conditions to multifamily buildings and complexes in hopes of assisting cities in aggressively building more new apartments. The laws are commonly known as “triplexes laws” because they also allow the addition of a junior granny flat as well as a regular granny apartment alongside the main residence.

By allowing two additional ADUs on a single-family lot, it is effectively ending single-family zoning as we’ve known it.

What’s buried in the fine print is the provision allowing existing multifamily projects to construct on site up to 25% additional apartments, assuming the site has the space. Any detached ADU would be limited to 16 feet in height and no closer than 4 feet from rear or side yard property line. Multiple junior ADUs could be added to existing multifamily buildings by converting underutilized space within existing buildings.

As an example, an existing 12-unit apartment building could add three additional ADUs without increasing its density or coverage limitation.

Unlike many other Bay Area urban counties, Marin, Sonoma and Napa do have a lot of high-density apartment complexes. Most of those built in the ’50s–’70s are low density, 12–20 units to an acre. Many of these complexes have under-utilized property where adding apartments would make sense. One obvious solution would be to build on top of existing carport parking.

Parking is always a key question. One parking space per ADU is required unless it is within a half mile of a public transit or bus stop. There’s even a condition allowing passenger pick-up spots which means, if Uber can get there, you don’t need parking.

What’s most important, this is considered an administrative approval without discretionary review or public hearing. A building permit is still required to meet local and state codes. Impact fees are limited if the unit is under 750 ft. Interestingly, these multifamily ADUs can be developed at the same time as a primary unit. This automatically increases the maximum density of any zoned site by 25%.

These state laws must be implemented at the local level and the city of Napa is considering ordinance 02019-008 for ADUs. The current sheltering rules has put official city action on the back burner, but expect it to go into effect in our near future.

Interestingly, as the baby boomer population ages, more granny flats will be necessary for seniors that don’t want to go to a “home” and accessibility will become an issue. Placing compact granny flats on second floors walk-ups could be an oxymoron. Providing adequate accessibility to and throughout the unit should be considered and included. Don’t forget the Granny in granny flat.

Commentary

Chris D. Craiker, AIA, NCARB, is a 40-year practicing architect and planner specializing in sustainable fire-wise construction. His Napa-based firm is Craiker Architects and Planners.

Read other NBBJ coverage about granny units.

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