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Kevin Dumain: What’s Next for ADUs?

This week, the Santa Barbara City Council is expected to deliberate and vote on a local Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance. From the outside, this might appear to be just an arcane matter of land use policy, but in reality, it’s an important and difficult decision between concerns for preservation versus adaptation with long-range implications.

Kevin Dumain
Kevin Dumain

The State of California has responded to the current housing crisis with a range of new laws that supersede the authority of local governments. Ben Metcalf, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, was quoted in The New York Times: “We can’t just plan for growth, we have to actually build.” With half or more of the developed land in our state built out in a low-density, suburban sprawl, it's inevitable that changes to these areas will be required at some point in the future if we are to accommodate just a portion of the growing demand for housing within our state.

One approach has been to encourage more large-scale developer housing projects. Senate Bill SB 827 proposed by state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco that is under consideration would significantly limit the authority of local governments to restrict development along transit corridors. This would be the large sledgehammer approach to development within limited areas and is feared by local leaders up and down the coast for its impacts on their communities.

Another more incremental approach is with the ADU legislation proposed by state Sen. Bob Wieckowski of Fremont. Starting with SB 1069 implemented last year, SB 229 this past January and most likely SB 831 next year, these bills also have superseded local land use regulations. The purpose of these bills, however, is to promote additional housing dispersed throughout residential neighborhoods via ADUs built by private homeowners.

In Santa Barbara, more than 300 applicants have filed plans to permit ADUs, most of them as conversions of existing space. This has challenged the city to balance supporting housing while  preserving neighborhood character. The irony of the preservationist’s argument is that the suburban single-family neighborhoods they seek to preserve are such a departure from the patterns of city building that preceded them. The automobile enabled families to buy their own homes far from established city centers, and zoning made these new development patterns permanent.

Before modern zoning, homeowners would expand or redevelop their property to adapt to their personal needs and the economic pressures of their communities. Now that housing is so expensive, the need for extended family homes and shared living arrangements is pushing our society back to the cities and toward traditional prewar forms of housing. Unfortunately, the rigid requirements of modern zoning are impeding the incremental changes that could help support this shifting demographic pattern and alleviate our housing crisis.

What is needed is some flexibility. The housing stock built around the “nuclear family” is increasingly shared with retirees, single people, extended families and various other co-housing arrangements. The intent of the ADU legislation authored by Sen. Wieckowski is to give homeowners the opportunity and flexibility to affordably modify their homes in ways that suit their needs with a low impact on the neighborhood. The goal is not to create additional rules, targets or incentives, but to make the process easier by superseding restrictive local regulations.

Technically, the state regulations are in effect until local governments can adopt their own ordinances, but this past year has proven to be more complicated than that. On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council will review and likely vote on an ordinance that aims to support ADUs provided that they comply with several local regulations, some of which are even more restrictive than those applicable to a single-family residence.

The most notorious of these is the owner occupancy covenant. The city is insisting that properties with ADUs be owner occupied in an effort to preserve neighborhood character, even though 30 percent of the single-family homes are rented and more than 60 percent of the residents of our town are renters. Applicants and lenders have both cited the technical and legal problems with this regulation, but the city attorney has insisted that the covenant is necessary as an enforcement tool. SB 831 most likely would make these covenants illegal next year.

Another shortcoming of the proposed ordinance are the requirements for open yard areas and setbacks. On this topic, the ADU subcommittee of the Santa Barbara chapter of the American Institute of Architects repeatedly has demonstrated that the proposed regulations are excessively restrictive and a barrier to the implementation of ADUs. The city ordinance consists of a series of proposed regulations, each of which sounds reasonable on its own, but collectively they don't intersect in a way that readily accommodates the construction of ADUs as intended by the state.

The Planning Commission, whose job it is to analyze the details, recognized this at its Jan. 25 meeting and voted to follow the AIA recommendations on open yards and setbacks. The Planning Department staff, however, forwarded a far more restrictive compromise to the Ordinance Committee, which has the ordinance under consideration. To support their proposal, the planning staff showed two exhibits, neither of which had the required open yard area required of the proposed ordinance or current applicants.

Santa Barbara desperately needs more housing, but this isn’t easy given our exemplary history of promoting quality architecture and supporting neighborhood preservation. The proposed response of enacting more restrictive rules is not the solution to this problem and likely will be overturned by the state in time. The sum of a series of precise regulations isn't better ADUs but far fewer ADUs. The challenge of our inevitable future — whether that be tomorrow or 50 years from now — is not in maintaining the past, but in focusing on what makes good housing at higher densities in a way that also makes for a livable sustainable community.

Please urge your City Council members to look to the future and support the creation of more ADUs by sending an email to [email protected], or by coming to the meeting to speak.

— 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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