In another effort to alleviate the region’s persistent affordable housing shortage, Sonoma County is trying to make it easier for residents to create additional living quarters on their properties.
Spurred by recent changes in state law, the Board of Supervisors this week moved to ease restrictions on so-called accessory units, also known as “granny units,” that are detached from or connected to a main residence.
Supervisors also authorized a new category of housing called a “junior” unit, which is essentially a small studio apartment converted from an existing bedroom in a single-family home.
The goal is to expand the county’s rental supply by speeding creation of more units that are “affordable by design” — or rented cheaper than many other units in the county because of their inherently smaller size. The county’s new ordinance was fueled by two related bills passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September.
Daniel Sanchez, government affairs director with the North Bay Association of Realtors, strongly supported the changes, which he said provide more housing options in unincorporated areas of the county.
“You’re not really going to be able to see significant amounts of housing built there, because the county is committed to city-center growth,” Sanchez said. “Junior accessory units and accessory units are a great option to increase the housing stock without increasing too much of the footprint or having more development than the community is ready to take on. It expands the housing options without creating major subdivisions.”
The move was the latest in a series of efforts from the county to address the area’s lack of sufficient affordable housing options. Previous actions include investing in a tiny homes project to house homeless veterans, converting a former motel into permanent housing for homeless people and launching a program to help low-income seniors hold onto their homes.
Sonoma County’s accessory and junior unit efforts follow similar measures undertaken in Marin County. Rachel Ginis, executive director of Lilypad Homes, helped push for the Marin rules, and her organization also sponsored one of the state bills passed last year.
“Many people are struggling to live comfortably in their homes, so we have a lot of housing insecurity going on,” said Ginis, who now lives in Kenwood. She founded Lilypad Homes to help others create additional housing units on their properties — just like she did when she converted part of her Corte Madera home into a rental unit after going through a divorce.
“This is a wonderful way to more efficiently use your homes, create housing for the people who participate in our community,” she said. “It’s just a win, every way you slice it.”
Sonoma County supervisors voiced optimism the new ordinance can generate more housing options for tenants in the county’s tight rental market.
But there is no assurance that the bulk of property owners will actually put their accessory and junior units on the rental market, instead of reserving them for other purposes such as guest rooms for visiting family.
And while the county has forbidden accessory and junior units from being rented for less than 30 days, Supervisor Susan Gorin worried some homeowners may try to use them as vacation rentals anyway.