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2020: The Year Of The ADU

Updated: Jul 11

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) should get a new lease on life in 2020 due to a heavy push for affordable housing perfectly timed with state regulation and advancements in construction technology.


The ADU housing approach is a fast and creative way to address affordable housing. ADUs, which have been around for years, go by a variety of names: casitas, pool homes, in-law suites, granny flats, guesthouses and secondary dwelling units, among them.


They are getting more attention amid the housing crisis as a way to leverage existing city infrastructure preventing urban sprawl and costly system expansions. Construction of ADUs creates jobs as well as additional tax revenue. And since ADUs are typically smaller than a traditional home, they are less costly to build. With so many wins, why haven’t ADUs gone viral?


Developers have another name for NIMBYs, or the not-in-my-backyard crowds: they’re BANANAs. The build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anything movement is real, loud, costly and frustrating for states attempting to address affordable housing. When affordable housing projects land at a city, unhappy citizens protest the elected officials they put in office and projects get nixed.


But, NIMBYs can’t take all the credit. Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation produced a report, “Residential Impact Fees in California,” and found some cities in California were charging upward of $50,000 in impact fees for accessory dwelling units. This is particularly troublesome since ADUs range from 350-1,200 square feet and are placed on existing sites with existing infrastructure. Exorbitant impact, park, utility and school fees are just a few ways cities are stifling the ADU movement in California which has been pushing ADUs since 2017.


In October, the city of Los Angeles released findings on its $1.2 billion affordable housing bond (Proposition HHH) showing since 2016, of the 6,000 housing units in process, the average per unit cost is over $500,000. The mouth-dropping cost combined with news of a 16% increase in LA’s homeless population to 36,000 means LA – and other California cities – need other options.


October 2019 was one for the ADU history books. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed 18 real estate related bills – including five on ADUs – making good on his promise to address California’s serious lack of construction and shortage of affordable housing.


Local control stripped for ADUs


California’s handful of bills addressing ADU issues were far reaching and took away local control from city governments, effectively eliminating NIMBY pushback.


Updates necessitate that cities standardize size requirements, update set back rules, approve permits within 60 days, clarify parking rules and launch a five-year owner-occupancy moratorium. It also drastically cuts impact fees. The goal is to make ADUs cheaper, faster and easier to get through the building-approval process.


Since the state is allowing and recommending ADUs count toward affordable housing numbers – which only a small fraction of cities in California are meeting – we can expect to measure the impact starting in 2021 after a year of tracking ADU numbers.


How about some new law fun facts?

  • No minimum lot size.

  • Owner won’t have to live on site.

  • Building height can reach 16 feet, even if it means blocking your neighbors’ view.

  • Owners can build a “junior ADU” within the primary residence measuring up to 500 square feet – even if there’s already an ADU on the property.

  • Garages can be converted into ADUs.

  • Local government must review a completed application within 60 days (previously 120 days).


By Aaron Norris

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