One of the quickest ways Santa Rosa can expand its housing inventory is by making it easier for property owners to build secondary dwellings, otherwise known as granny units. And with the help of a new state law designed to streamline the process, the city is taking an aggressive approach to do just that.
Those who have tried say that building secondary units over a garage or as part of an existing single-family residence in Santa Rosa is overly complicated and prohibitively expensive. Obstacles include setback requirements that leave little room to build, prohibitions on building anything larger than a one-bedroom, 700-square-foot unit and deed restrictions that require property owners to live on site. In addition, units are required to come with at least one on-site parking space.
But many of those restrictions would be relaxed under a proposal that will be heading to the Santa Rosa City Council soon. The plan calls for boosting the maximum size of granny units from 700 square feet to 1,200 square feet, lifting the restriction on owners living on site and granting an exemption to the parking requirement if the unit meets certain requirements such as being located within a half-mile of a public transit stop or car-share vehicle or within a historic preservation district. Most important, the city is looking at lowering fees and, in some cases, eliminating the requirement for expensive water and sewer fees for such secondary units. For many, this would likely reduce the cost of adding a second unit by tens of thousands of dollars.
These steps would help the city achieve the ambitious objectives of its Housing Action Plan, which calls for the construction of 2,500 affordable housing units and the overall creation of 5,000 additional housing units within six years.
But the one issue that continues to divide the community — and left the Planning Commission deadlocked 3-3 during a recent vote — is whether the new rules should come with a 30-day minimum for rentals. They should, and they must.
It’s simple economics. Without a 30-day minimum, many homeowners would likely use this newly streamlined process to create vacation units to be rented out through online services such as Airbnb and VRBO. That can be a lucrative business, and property owners say having that option would make it easier for them to buy or afford to stay in their homes.
That may be true. But that’s not the purpose of this initiative. The objective is to create more housing for residents who live here, not more vacation options for tourists who visit here.
Given the rise in the number of Santa Rosa listings on Airbnb and VRBO, the city may need to take a more comprehensive look at how vacation rentals are regulated. But the granny unit proposal should not be left in limbo in the meantime. City Council members have agreed that creating housing is the community’s top priority, and they’ve made a promise to make that happen. Encouraging the development of secondary rental units, and protecting them with a 30-day minimum, is the best next step to keeping that promise.