New 'granny unit' policies in Santa Rosa, Marin County spur secondary-home spike

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A version of this story originally appeared on, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.

Data shows the trend of building “secondary homes” — small living spaces adjacent to traditional single family — continues to grow in the North Bay, especially in Santa Rosa.

That city received more applications to build “granny units” last year than it had in the entire preceding decade, evidence that Santa Rosa’s efforts to spur housing just about any way it can is starting to yield results.

Property owners last year applied for permits to add 118 secondary homes, small living spaces adjacent to traditional single-family residences, according to new city data. The number of applications was well above the previous record of 33 in 2017 and exceeds the 85 applications for secondary homes from 2008 to 2017.

Vice Mayor Chris Rogers recently touted the record application figure on Twitter and emphasized the “symbiotic relationship” between a homeowner with a secondary unit and the renter living on their property.

“It creates, hopefully, an affordable housing unit while also helping somebody who may be struggling to live here as well,” Rogers said in an interview.

Thirty nine applications for secondary homes in 2018 were submitted in areas leveled by the October 2017 fires, which destroyed about 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock. Rogers noted that efforts to make it easier and less expensive to build secondary homes were not the sole change Santa Rosa made to address its housing shortage but was part of “a whole array of housing reforms we needed to make to give people places to live.”

The number of units jumped after the City Council, acting in the wake of the 2017 fires, approved a set of changes to make it easier for homeowners to build additional small housing units on their property in conjunction with state deregulation efforts.

So far in January, the city has received seven applications — as many as it received in all of 2015 — and has approved six.

The spike in secondary homes is “one of the earliest areas we’re seeing progress” in addressing the city’s housing shortage, said David Guhin, assistant city manager and director of planning and economic development. Other recent city reforms include incentives for dense development near Santa Rosa’s two train stations and expedited review of housing project plans.

The new rules, approved by a 5-2 vote in December 2017 after lengthy debate, eliminated a requirement that property owners with granny units live on-site, required smaller units be rented out for at least 30 days, and waived certain utility fees and setback requirements. In October 2018, the City Council agreed to stop requiring utility connection fees for any unit 750 square feet and smaller.

Guhin said the city’s efforts lowered the permitting cost of building a typical secondary home in Santa Rosa from about $22,000 to about $4,000 for a unit that is 750 square feet or smaller.

“The fees were a barrier to entry,” he said. “They were too high to move a second unit forward.”

That was a concern echoed by Stacey Lince, an instructional designer who lives in Santa Rosa. She wanted to convert a detached garage on her property into a small home for her mother and decided to wait to convert the garage into 380-square-foot, one-bedroom space with a kitchenette while the city mulled changes in late 2017.

A version of this story originally appeared on, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.

Before the changes, the fees for building an accessory dwelling unit were “ludicrous,” she said, citing a $25,000 estimate. But the city’s reforms dropped that down to about $3,000, she said.

“It definitely helped, but it’s not a cheap process by any means,” Lince said. She suggested the city make the secondary home process easier to navigate, particularly when it comes to complying with building codes designed to make homes more environmentally friendly.

“If this is something they’re going to encourage, especially as a means of solving the housing crisis,” the city should provide “better resources to simplify the process,” she said.

While the application total may have doubled, the city doesn’t have a bead on exactly how many accessory units exist in Santa Rosa, Guhin said, noting that many secondary homes are unpermitted.

The city hopes to have a better count of how many of the applications actually result in construction of a secondary home by early 2020.

In Marin County, officials says relaxed regulations intended to encourage more granny units is leading to more applications.

In San Rafael, Community Development Department Director Paul Jensen said after local regulations on such units were repealed and less restrictive state rules put in their place, the number rose from six requested in 2016 to 31 approved out of 37 applications in 2018.

“The costly requirements can no longer be required,” Jensen said. Restrictions were lifted that required utility connection fees and dictated parking be built even if a dwelling was close to transit connections, he said.

The permit price depended on the type of housing being built or altered, but the initial “ministerial review” including the planning, review and approval process was a minimum of $300 plus building permit fees, Jensen said.

Bridgette Choate, a permit services manager with Marin County, said between February 2017 and November of last year 44 planning permits were applied for and 15 issued. Another 29 had not necessarily been rejected but could be subject to additional review, applicants deciding to wait, or other factors, she said.

Elsewhere in Marin, three applications for such dwellings were made in 2018 in Novato, according to city records, and none between August through December of 2017.

“The owner has to occupy either the accessory unit or the primary dwelling unit,” said Vivek Damodaran, a planner for the city.

Depending on the size of the proposed unit, planning fee costs range from $373 to $747, plus other fees as applicable, Damodaran said.

“State law gives us 120 days from the application date to take action to either approve or deny,” he added, noting permits could be denied if a proposal did not meet size requirements, or other development standards.

The building divisions for the city and county of Napa did not immediately respond to calls and emails requesting comment.

North Bay Journal Staff Writer Chase DiFeliciantonio contributed to this report. Reach him at or 707-521-4257.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @wsreports.

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