Backyard Cottages Could Be the Most Feasible Type of Housing To Build During COVID-19. Some California Cities Are Still Blocking Them.
Despite the best efforts of the California State Legislature to let homeowners convert a garage or tool shed into much-needed rental housing, many of the state’s local governments continue to deny permits for these units.
The battle is now moving to the courts in a case that has major implications for property rights and the prospects of adding additional housing in a state that was underbuilding long before coronavirus saw construction grind to a halt.
This week, homeowner Cordelia Donnelly asked the California Supreme Court to weigh in on her lawsuit against the city government of San Marino, which has refused to give her a permit for an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) that meets state standards, but conflicts with the local zoning code.
Her case has its roots in a 2016 state law, Senate Bill (S.B.) 1069, which requires local governments to permit ADUs by-right—meaning they aren’t subject to the discretionary approval of planning officials—so long as they conform to certain state regulations.
The idea behind the law, says Tony Francois, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing Donnelly, is to let homeowners interested in adding a second unit bypass approval processes that are “so complex, time-consuming, expensive, and fraught with failure that it’s just not worth it for average people.”
So long as a homeowner’s proposed granny flat or garage unit met some basic standards—like being on a residentially zoned plot of land and being no bigger than 1,200 square feet—local governments had to give it a stamp of approval. Local laws that went beyond state standards, or required additional approvals, were declared null and void.
S.B. 1069 went into effect in January 2017. That same month, Donnelly applied for a permit to build an ADU atop a detached garage on her property. She was hardly alone in jumping at the opportunity to take advantage of the state’s streamlined approval conditions.
In a number of cities, ADU permit applications skyrocketed. In Los Angeles, for instance, permit applications for these units increased 30-fold after the new law went into e
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