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Kevin Dumain: What’s the Deal with ADUs?

The lack of affordable housing in California has gotten so bad that the state has actually begun to do something about it.

Kevin Dumain Click to view larger
Kevin Dumain

For years, Sacramento attempted to address the housing issue with centralized plans and policies, but local governments stymied these efforts in order to appease their constituents. Something had to change.

Now the state has finally begun to enact a series of laws and consider others that will incrementally strip local authorities of their decision-making roles in order to promote housing.

A new California state law, SB 35, that took effect Jan. 1 will give developers the ability to build large housing projects without the review and objections of local governments if those governments have not met their state-mandated housing quotas. SB 167 will alter the evidentiary standards used to approve or disapprove a project, thereby making it easier for developers and housing advocates to overcome resistance from local government entities.

Other bills set aside more money for state-funded housing projects, and Gov. Jerry Brown repeatedly has proposed streamlining the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process for large housing projects.

The state can also get more serious with the Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) targets by linking state funding to how well local communities achieve their housing targets.

One of the common threads to these initiatives are being “big” ideas intended to address the housing crisis by promoting big projects. Unfortunately, these solutions can only be fulfilled by those with a lot of time, money and political support.

Last January, the Legislature also enacted SB 1069, which takes a decidedly “small” approach to housing but has the potential to dramatically change our communities. Sponsored by state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, the measure encourages the development of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), and was intended to be a do-it-yourself solution that could be accomplished by ordinary homeowners with limited resources.

Unlike the “big” housing projects that until recently have only occurred in limited areas that were deemed suitable, ADUs, or “granny flats,” are a viable means of creating additional housing within the ordinary suburban neighborhoods of low-density single-family homes. This is the low hanging fruit in the housing crisis, and ADUs are a means of increasing the housing stock without dramatically altering existing neighborhoods.

Recently a subcommittee of the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Institute of Architects analyzed the 250-plus ADU applications in the City of Santa Barbara and found that 70 percent to 80 percent of the projects were for the conversion of existing structures. These included rooms within existing residences, garages and accessory structures. Some of the applications were also for the permitting of previously illegal units.

These ADUs are not the tidal wave of “​McMansions” anticipated by naysayers, but a demonstrated pattern of projects that readily fit into existing neighborhoods.

Wieckowski sought to give homeowners the ability to cut through the red tape and create housing that suited their needs for a modest cost. Under these new rules, people can build independent units for their “boomerang” kids, renters or even themselves. It doesn’t waive the life safety provisions of the Building Code, but it does help cut through restrictive local land-use regulations to make it easier and less expensive to build that “granny flat.”

Homeowners have been overwhelming enthusiastic about these new rules. On the other hand, municipalities have struggled to find a middle ground that preserves neighborhoods, and satisfies their constituents who want to build. This has resulted in some policy proposals that significantly reduce the opportunities for ADUs.

The City of Santa Barbara is gradually coming around, but some of the pending regulations would still hold back the potential for this new source of infill housing.

Change is at our threshold regardless of what we choose to do as a city. The ADU initiative is our best alternative. It’s good for our neighborhoods and our families, and it requires the least amount of effort on the part of our municipal government.

A free, informative ADU forum will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 1740 Cliff Drive. On Jan. 11, the Santa Barbara Planning Commission will be reviewing the latest ordinance proposal. Everyone is encouraged to attend to voice your opinion.

— Kevin Dumain AIA is an associate with the local architecture firm DesignARC. He and his wife, Jill, are Mesa residents. The opinions expressed are his own.

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