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In its latest bid to increase the supply of affordable housing, Santa Rosa has made it easier and cheaper to build new granny units in the city.

The City Council approved late Tuesday a series of updates its so-called “accessory dwelling unit” rules in an effort to make it easier for homeowners to build additional units on their properties.

But they also made it clear they weren’t interested in making it easier for people to build granny units only to have people rent them out to tourists on Airbnb or some other vacation rental site.

“We’re doing this to provide housing, not lodging,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.

After a lengthy debate on several of the policy particulars, the council adopted the changes on a 5-2 vote.

One of the more controversial elements of the proposal was removing the requirement for the property owner to occupy at least one of the units on the property.

Councilman John Sawyer said he wasn’t comfortable removing the requirement, worrying that doing so could “change the nature of a number of neighborhoods in our city in the future.”

“I really love the idea of being bold, but what I don’t want to be is hasty,” Sawyer said. But the implication that renters somehow represented a risk to the status quo without the oversight of a property owner seemed to irk Vice Mayor Chris Rogers, the council’s only renter.

“When you talk about the way renters shift a neighborhood, I like to think that I’m the kind of person you would want renting in your neighborhood,” Rogers said.

It struck him as a “disconnect” for council members to on one hand suggest landlords should be encouraged to rent to low-income residents while on the other hand worry about renters changing the neighborhood.

Councilman Jack Tibbett said he favored owner occupancy requirements if the units were to be rented out as vacation rentals. He noted it was not that long ago that he was a college student, adding “I don’t think you’d have wanted me in your backyard without the owner on site.”

Ultimately, Mayor Chris Coursey proposed lifting the owner occupancy requirement only if one of the units on the property — either the main house or the granny unit — where covered by an “affordability contract,” meaning the city ensures the units are rented at clearly affordable levels.

Coursey said his motive was not to discriminate against renters.

“I worry about out-of-town investors buying up all these new (homes) and them all becoming rentals. That’s where I’m coming from,” Coursey said.

Granny units are attached or detached residential dwellings under 1,200 square feet, located on the same parcel as an existing single-family dwelling. They must provide complete, independent living facilities, including sleeping, cooking, bathing and sanitation.

Owners were in line to get a break on some permit fees. For the construction of smaller units, some fees valued at $10,000 were set to be waived for units 750-square-feet and smaller, with reduced fees also for units between 750-square-feet and 1,200-square-feet.

The new rules amount to an amnesty program for those who come in voluntarily to get their illegal granny units properly permitted. People who voluntarily comply would not face fines. Those who are reported by code enforcement, however, could still face penalties, city staff said.

Resident Stacey Lince, whose high school and college-aged kids still live with her, said she’s been thinking of building a granny unit for her mom for two years, and welcomed the city’s move.

“There is very little multi-generational housing in this county,” Lince said.

On the subject of vacation rentals, the changes will require granny units to be rented out for at least 30 days, a provision aimed at ensuring the units aren’t just rented out to tourists as vacation rentals.

What this means for people who currently rent out granny units is not clear. A city staff report at one point identified 100 vacation rentals offered online in Santa Rosa alone. City staff have previously suggested that existing granny units could be grandfathered in — that is, allowed to remain vacation rentals — if they could prove the units were aboveboard, such as a history of paying required transit occupancy taxes.

Such units might be granted a legal non-conforming use and allowed to continue operating as a vacation rental, city planner Jessica Jones.

“The question will be ‘Was the use of that granny unit as a unit for less than 30 days a legal use when it was established?’” Jones, said.

The city will not be sending out inspectors in an effort to shut down existing vacation rental operations, but such uses come to their attention, the city will address the issue on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the City Attorney’s office. Jones said.

The council steered clear of turning what was effectively a granny unit streamlining measure into a vacation rental policy debate. Councilwoman Julie Combs said she welcomed that discussion at a later date, though she recognized it might be a while.

“I hope it happens, but I’m not holding my breath,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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