We have a housing crisis in Sonoma County that needs immediate attention. And while my quick fix for the rental aspect of this crisis is basically a no-brainer, you might be surprised by what is preventing us from providing many affordable homes for people of limited means. And doing it in less than a month or two.
Plain and simple, we need all of our building departments to change their antiquated restrictions on garage conversions for habitation. A topic near and dear to me as one whose hands are presently tied, preventing me from eventually becoming part of the prescribed housing solution — a solution that could provide a win-win situation for all concerned. This includes the homeless, financially challenged homeowners, elder homeowners of independent means who could use some bartered help for compassionately providing a home, tradespeople, local building materials suppliers and all the towns of Sonoma County that could use some additional revenue.
So here’s the issue. As a retired building contractor, I have great respect for most codes and the building permit process — for everyone’s safety. During my 34 years as a California licensed general building contractor, I’ve corrected a whole lot of dangerous remodel work done by amateurs without building permits. (The terrible Oakland warehouse fire wouldn’t have killed 36 had that building been up to code for habitation.)
And then there are those stupid rules, those aggravating, antiquated, building codes that make no sense. Codes like this: “If you want to convert your garage into habitable living space, you need to provide a ‘covered’ alternate parking space somewhere on your property” — to supplement the loss of your garaged parking spot; so as to avoid impacting your neighbors street parking.
Though supplementing a lost parking spot makes sense — for blocks already saturated with too many cars — the key word is “covered.” That’s a deal breaker for most because carports aren’t only unsightly and expensive but also require a set back of 15 to 20 feet from the sidewalk, which most houses cannot provide.
In reality, providing that “covered” parking spot has caused many, possibly many hundreds, in the county to do their conversions illegally undercover, which is not only dangerous, when electric, gas and heat aren’t done by professionals, but it’s not convenient for the homeowners. This also costs the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in permit fees that could have otherwise been collected while assuring these garage conversions were done safely — and allowing homeowners to replace those unwanted garage doors with nice big windows.
Hence, I propose a solution whose time has come. We ask our city councils to tell our building departments, and planning and zoning, to drop the “covered” aspect of providing additional parking to make up for the lost garage space(s). And, for blocks like mine — Pacific Avenue between Beaver and King streets — where there’s always no less than 15 empty street parking spots available, there should be no need to provide any additional parking on one’s property if doing so isn’t possible, is too costly or would just be plain ugly.
By the way, thus far, several Santa Rosa City Council members, and one person in planning have all told me, “This is a great idea.”
I am not, however, advocating any more unjustified across-the-board rules that say that any homeowner should be allowed to convert their garage, because not all streets can accommodate that. Every situation should be assessed individually.