When Jonathan Pacheco Bell conducted zoning enforcement for the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning from 2006 to 2020, he frequently encountered homeowners who had built smaller, detached residential dwellings, known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), on the same lot as their single-family homes. Often these units, nicknamed “granny flats,” were unpermitted and violated zoning codes, which required that they not be built too close to their neighbor’s fence. Codes also restricted the conversion of garages into ADUs.
“Everyone had ADUs, but they were against the law. I used to go into homes and make people cry,” Pacheco Bell said. “They would say, ‘This was the only form of housing I could provide for my family.’ I would tell them that the zoning code doesn’t allow it, and they would have to demolish it.”
Bell said he also observed “classist” stereotypes about ADUs, depending on where they were located. “In wealthier neighborhoods there were ADUs; (but) they weren’t called ADUs. They were backyard ‘guest houses’ built decades before or ‘servant housing,’” he recalled. “There were never any demeaning aspects attributed to it.”
Today the mindset about ADUs is dramatically shifting, as the state seeks ways to increase affordable housing, and cities pursue opportunities to meet Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) requirements to further the state’s economic, fair housing and environmental objectives. Meanwhile, Governor Gavin Newsom has set an ambitious statewide target of building 3.5 million new homes by 2025.
“ADUs are envisioned as an affordable way to build new housing where it’s already existing—as infill in the neighborhood. It’s not about building high-density housing blocks. You’re instead adding density in the backyard.
It’s not without controversy, but much more controversial is the high-density, multifamily high-rise housing,” Pacheco Bell said. “So with accessory dwelling units, you can talk about
housing opportunity and affordable housing in a way that is more palatable in the South Bay.”
Today, instead of playing the role of ADU code enforcement, Pacheco Bell is working on a project with potential to help legally accelerate their construction across the South Bay region. Following his work for LA County and a brief role at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, he joined the South Bay Cities Council of Governments (SBCCOG) in 2021 to support member city community development directors and to manage Regional Early Action Planning (REAP) State of California grant funding, designed to spur affordable housing production. A total of $604,171 in REAP grant funds is available to the SBCCOG to support the 15 South Bay cities for housing planning activities through 2023.
STUDYING THE IMPACT
In 2020, the SBCCOG applied for and received this funding to implement a variety of projects, including to help cities explore the option of ADUs to increase affordable housing inventory. The SBCCOG has hired Black & Veatch to help study the potential impacts of such backyard housing to South Bay infrastructure, including possible strain to water, electricity and sewer systems,
as well as parking.
Additional REAP projects under this funding will include a project to identify under-performing commercial segments for potential conversion into affordable housing and conducting a housing education and training series for South Bay cities.
The first tier of the ADU Acceleration Project will be a survey mailed to approximately 500 South Bay Homes in late August. It will target property owners who have built ADUs, as well as people who live in them—sometimes renters and sometimes family. For homeowners, the objective is to learn what went well, and what hurdles they faced in obtaining permits to build their ADU. It also seeks to learn how the ADU is being used—whether for an elder who is aging in place, or a child who is a college student. It will ask whether the ADU is being offered as free housing or bringing in rent.
The survey will ask tenants whether an ADU compelled them to move to the South Bay, and if so, whether they moved from near or far, and, among other questions, the positive and negative aspects of living in an ADU. A geographic information system (GIS) mapping layer will reveal where in the South Bay ADUs are most common.
According to Pacheco Bell, current statewide laws have eased most of the obstacles built into prior zoning codes that restricted new—or required the demolition of existing—ADU construction, including changes to property-line spacing requirements and garage conversions.
“The new laws now give you a pathway to build a new ADU, or keep and legalize one already built without permits, after the fact,” he said.
But while a possible housing solution, Bell points out the survey could also reveal potential ADU pitfalls.
“ADUs might not be as affordable as people think they are. They might be used as profit-driven housing in your backyard, and not really provide an affordable option,” he said. “Part of this study is
trying to understand where we are in the South Bay with ADUs. We’re going to learn from this and we’re going to share this with the whole subregion.”
ADU Calculator Helps Homeowners Calculate ADU Feasibility
To assist homeowners in their assessment of the actual costs—from permit to design to construction—of adding an ADU, the SBCCOG recently added an ADU Calculator to its website. Check out the South Bay ADU Calculator, which is available in in English, Spanish and Chinese.