PD Editorial: A housing fix: Make room for granny

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We’ve said it before. Building more houses is a surefire solution to the affordable housing crisis.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. We’ve said that, too.

There are practical obstacles — unsuitable land, inadequate water supplies, endangered species protections, steep fees for the new parks, new schools and other infrastructure needed to serve new homes. Oftentimes there are political obstacles, too, everything from neighborhood opposition to a specific development proposal to reflexive objections to growth of any kind.

Is it any wonder that communities across the state are struggling to meet the need for affordable, habitable housing?

There isn’t a solution that will satisfy everyone.

It’s going to take a variety of strategies to chip away at this problem, and state legislators are reviewing proposals to facilitate an approach that could produce a significant amount of new housing without sprawl: adding granny units to single-family homes.

Supervisorial candidates in Sonoma County have floated the same idea.

Consider this: Construction began on about 1,500 new housing units in Sonoma County in 2015. And that was the largest number in several years. Adding a second unit to 10 percent of the existing homes in Sonoma County would create about 12,000 new housing units. A similar increase across the nine-county Bay Area would translate to about 150,000 new housing units.

An improbable scenario? Yes, it is. But it illustrates the scale of the potential gains to be made by scattering new housing throughout existing neighborhoods.

Even a much smaller number of second units could have a substantial impact on the current shortage of affordable housing.

However, converting a garage or adding a second unit can be a protracted and costly proposition, even on a large property with existing water and sewer service.

In a Close to Home column this past week (“A long and costly journey to build just one granny unit,” July 24), Michael Von der Porten of Santa Rosa described a yearlong effort and $150,000 in costs (including the purchase of a 694-square-foot prefabricated home) to add a granny unit on his half-acre.

“In short,” he concluded, “there are no cheap, easy and legal answers to create additional housing in Sonoma County.”

Some communities have relaxed zoning rules or adjusted fees to promote construction of second units, but others prohibit them altogether. A bill by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would require California cities to allow second units.

Bloom’s measure, Assembly Bill 2299, also would prohibit some common regulatory obstacles, including requirements for more than one parking space per bedroom or an uncovered pathway between a second unit and the street.

Senate Bill 1069, by state Sen. Bob Weickowski, D-Fremont, would bar water and sewer agencies from charging hookup fees for second units built within an existing house or in an existing detached unit on the same lot as the primary home.

These are modest changes, but with the spiraling cost of housing in Sonoma County and throughout much of California, they promise more housing opportunities for grandparents looking to downsize, millennial children looking for independence and anyone else looking for a home in this costly market.

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