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In-Law Units Are Coming to Your Neighborhood

Barbara Gilbert
Monday February 24, 2003

The state of California, in response to the housing crisis, recently adopted AB 1866, a measure that aims to eliminate local discretionary review, the public discussion process and most existing development standards relating to the creation of in-law units in R-1 single-family neighborhoods.  

If implemented as intended by its backers, your neighbor will be able to create an in-law unit with no discretionary review or public hearing if the proposed unit does not exceed 30 percent of the main living area if attached to the main dwelling, and the total floor area of the proposed unit does not exceed 1200 square feet. Tandem parking and parking in otherwise deemed “setback areas” will be allowed. The only way to generally preclude such proposals for in-law units would be for the governing jurisdiction to make official findings that acknowledge that the relevant zoning ordinances “may limit housing opportunities of the region” and that “specific adverse impacts on the public health, safety, and welfare…justify…the ordinance.” To reject a specific in-law unit proposal, findings must be made that the proposed unit is not feasible based on site, topographical and fire and life safety issues for that site. No provision is made for “detriment” to neighbors. 

There are advantages to this policy, including increased income and on-site companionship for elderly and/or financially-strapped homeowners; increased opportunity for extended families to live together; possible reduction in residences housing numerous unrelated adults and their automobiles; possible reduction in the need and authorization for large and costly housing developments with substantial city-wide impacts; dispersion of new housing units throughout the city, thereby minimizing and sharing negative impacts; and, in general, a serious increase in housing availability and affordability.  

The negative aspects include: increased density in already-impacted neighborhoods, particularly with respect to automobiles; more bad feeling among neighbors; further detriment to neighborhood amenities such as light, air, appearance, etc.; and abandonment of Berkeley’s traditional democratic process with respect to development matters. 

There are related issues that need to be considered as well. Parking is a limited resource and is usually the main “density” concern of Berkeley residents. If we can better manage our parking in a fair way, we can perhaps decrease objections to in-law units. In overparked residential permit parking (RPP) areas, in-law units could work only if RPPs are generally limited to a set maximum per address (say four), only to one registered vehicle per occupant (up to the four maximum) and only issued when there is an actual driver with an actual registered vehicle. In the less-impacted non-RPP residential areas, some reasonable limits would need to be imposed on the number of vehicles parked on the streets by all residential owners. 

Also, no sane homeowner would admit the rent control board and more than minimal city regulations into their life and personal space. For in-law units to be viable, there would need to be an exemption from the purview of the city’s rent control machinery and only minimal other regulatory health and safety measures.  

In addition, under current circumstances, there are hundreds if not thousands of single-family residences that house several unrelated adults, most of whom have automobiles that take up street space. There is apparently no regulation of these “households” (no business license tax for owner/landlords, no rent board registration and fee payment, and no health and safety inspections) and, most significantly, no enforcement of existing zoning code requirements for one off-street parking space per two boarders.  

Competing needs and desires for land use are at the heart of Berkeley’s politics and disputes. Current regulations provide both a healthy democratic process and a serious impediment to change. If in-law units are to be increased, a way must be found to mitigate their negative effects and educate neighbors as to the more draconian alternatives being put forth by the affordable housing lobby. 

Many Berkeleyans do not want big housing developments with big impacts, certainly not in their own neighborhoods. However, I believe that most Berkeleyans would like to be able to support more affordable housing.  

Are in-law units the way to mesh these competing goals? 

Perhaps a deal could be made whereby, over time, we could add a large part of the requisite new housing through in-law units scattered throughout the city at the same time that we decrease the number of housing units added in large-scale projects. The new in-law units would need to be embodied in an envelope that seriously addresses and mitigates legitimate concerns relating to neighborhood detriment, parking and rent control.