New bill to spur secondary units draws fire from cities

By Jim Wasserman The Associated Press
Monday July 01, 2002

Small, cheap “granny flats” supported by
affordable housing groups, real estate
agents and senior citizen groups


SACRAMENTO – The Legislature’s newest vision to spur desperately needed rental housing is drawing fire from cities and environmentalists who fear it may blight neighborhoods. 

So-called “granny flats,” the small back yard or above-garage units touted nationally for older relatives, college students and other renters, should be easier to build in California, say senior citizens groups, affordable housing activists and real estate agents. 

They’ve driven a bill through the state Assembly and almost to the Senate floor to make cities approve secondary units without the public hearings where neighbors often rise up to block them. The bill also makes it easier for developers to add extra apartments or condominiums to projects that include units for moderate- or lower-income people. 

“Density bonuses and granny flats are not going to solve our housing crisis. But they are smart growth ways to use land more efficiently,” says Marc Brown, attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. The California Association of Realtors is also sponsoring the bill. 

But 45 California cities and their powerful capitol advocate, the League of California Cities, call the bill an assault on their citizens’ free speech and cities’ traditional power to decide how they grow. 

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to take the public out of the discussion,” says league lobbyist Daniel Carrigg. “As with any other land use projects, things can be controversial. We have a tradition of promoting and encouraging local discussion.” 

Some cities fear a rash of in-law units or “granny flats,” a term that originated in Australia, could overload home-owning neighborhoods with renters and cars. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Planning and Conservation League say the bill could spur unwanted development and blight. 

Many older cities already contend with thousands of illegally added second units. But housing advocates say it’s hard to get any approved legally when neighbors intimidate elected officials at public hearings. 

Christine Minnehan of Sacramento contended with opponents when she applied to build a garage unit behind her house for family members. 

“We had a hearing and a rehearing. I had to organize the neighborhood, meet with everybody and walk them through,” she says. “Eventually, I was able to get the permit. But it was after a substantial delay and a great deal of unpleasantness in the neighborhood.” 

Ironically, Minnehan, a former official with the state Department of Housing and Community Development, sponsored the 1982 bill requiring cities to allow secondary units. 

“Unfortunately, people come to associate threats from affordable housing to the values of their property, even when it’s seniors,” says Alayna Waldrum, spokeswoman for the California Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. 

Like other housing bills, the granny flat debate illustrates the conflicts between the state, which is responsible for housing its 35 million residents, and local governments, which control how land gets developed. Meanwhile, an already-critical housing shortage worsens yearly, further stressing middle- and lower-income residents, say builders, activists and, most recently, the state’s Little Hoover Commission. 

Brown says the bill, AB1866, by Assemblyman Roderick Wright, D-Los Angeles, aims to overcome obstacles that many cities have erected since 1982 to discourage second units — or extra units in “affordable” projects. 

Wright’s bill would make cities approve units that meet their building codes with a simple permit. 

Though cities such as Chula Vista say the idea “dramatically undermines a city council’s local land use planning authority,” Daly City has issued permits without hearings or city council votes since 1983. 

Unlike some cities where approvals can take months, Daly City charges $100 to approve plans that meet its codes, says Terry Sedik, director of economic and community development. He says the San Mateo County city of 106,000 approved 189 units from 1983 to 1989, then helped legalize 837 illegally built units during the 1990s. 

“We don’t get a big influx. It’s 10 or 20 applications a year,” Sedik says. He calls it a “non-regulatory way of creating affordable housing.” 

No one knows the exact number of “granny flats,” or “in-law units” in California. The state’s Construction Industry Research Board says it doesn’t track the category. But among thousands of legal units statewide, housing officials say thousands more are built illegally. The Central City Association of Los Angeles estimates Los Angeles alone may have up to 100,000 makeshift garage dwellings. San Francisco may have more than 25,000 illegal secondary units, says the San Francisco Urban Research and Planning Association. 

They’re also common in Santa Ana, which has the nation’s most crowded homes, according to recently released U.S. Census data. Supporters of Wright’s bill say difficulties getting permits breed illegal units. In San Francisco, where it’s considered difficult to get secondary units approved, County Supervisor Aaron Peskin recently introduced legislation to make it easier. 

The bill’s backers say small in-law units help family members and renters find housing they can afford while increasingly — in a market of escalating home prices — helping owners pay their mortgages. 

The bill must clear the Senate’s Appropriations Committee before moving to the Senate floor. If passed, the final word is with Gov. Gray Davis. Davis spokesman Russell Lopez says Davis has not made a decision on the legislation.