'It's a civic duty': Why Californians can and should turn their garages into homes
Among the hundreds of new California laws Governor Gavin Newsom signed covering a wide range of issues including increased minimum wage, increased paid family leave, rent caps, and the end of circus shows featuring exotic animals, is a new law regulating “granny units,” or accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
Assembly Bill 68 (codified in Government Code section 65852.2 and 65852.22) gives homeowners more flexibility to build two ADUs on their parcel, a detached ADU and a Junior ADU, which is part of the primary residence, thus creating the functional equivalent of a triplex.
The new law limits local jurisdictions' abilities to regulate ADUs. It allows ADUs of at least 800 square feet and 16 feet tall, reduces setback requirements to four feet, removes minimum lot coverage and lot size requirements, and eliminates certain parking requirements.
For example, a jurisdiction may not impose parking standards if the ADU is within one-half mile walking distance of public transit. Replacement parking is not required when a garage, carport, or covered parking structure is demolished to create, or converted to, an ADU. Owner occupancy is no longer required of either the primary dwelling unit or the ADU. ADUs cannot be used for vacation or short term rentals of less than 30 days. Also, CC&Rs may no longer prohibit ADUs on lots zoned for single family dwellings.
Prior to 2020, local jurisdictions had the authority to restrict the number of ADUs that could be built on a parcel as well as to impose further development standards. Under the old ordinance, Sonoma County restricted the number of ADUs on a parcel to one, set minimum lot sizes, and dictated setback requirements consistent with the applicable zoning district.
The new law addresses the state's burgeoning housing crisis. ADUs are a relatively inexpensive way to create smaller, more affordable rental housing units that may provide the property owner with a revenue stream and increase the availability of rental housing in a tight market.
In a news conference in October 2019, Governor Newsom addressed the California housing crisis and stated, “… we need to call local government out for not building enough housing.”
An Oct. 10, 2019, a Los Angeles Times article reported, “According to U.S. Census data, nearly two–thirds of residences in California are single-family homes. And between half and three-quarters of the developable land in much of the state is zoned only for single-family housing, …”
Proponents of ADUs blame the dominance of single-family zoning for California's housing shortage and argue that backyard homes are essential to helping solve the housing crisis and avoid sprawl. Ben Metcalf, former director of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, goes so far as to offer, “Your civic duty as a Californian is: You've gotta convert your garage.”
Sonoma County generally allows ADUs in residential, mixed-use, and agricultural and resource zones, but remain prohibited in the ADU Exclusion (Z) Combining Zone. Zoning permits will no longer be required for ADUs, thus subjecting them to ministerial approval within 60 days, although the process will still require building permits and any applicable related permits such as septic and grading permits. Thus, applicants will need to navigate three main steps to obtain ADU approval.
First, the property owner should investigate the property's septic suitability.
Next, the applicant needs to find out whether the property has any additional requirements related to water, which will vary depending on the type of water service and location.
Finally, after confirming septic and water requirements, the applicant can submit a building permit application and any other related permits needed for the project. According to Metcalf, the applicant is then on their way to fulfilling their civic duty!