While observing homes from the street in a single-family neighborhood, you would never know that a residence has a so-called “granny flat” in the back. The longer-term renters or vacationers come and go quietly, woven into the fabric of the neighborhood.
And as you likely guessed, the dwellers are not just grannies. They may be retirees on a fixed income, yes, but of either gender, seeking to age in place behind a residence in a neighborhood they are otherwise unable to afford. This arrangement allows them to maintain a healthy level of independence, perhaps with a family member or two nearby. “Granny flat” dwellers can be adult children renting a unit near a family home before transitioning to a space all their own. They might be young professionals not quite ready for the maintenance and responsibility of a single-family house but less drawn to apartment life. An increasingly popular contingent includes those seeking affordable options in an area too pricey for them to purchase or rent an entire home, where job growth is outpacing housing supply. They might simply be vacationers or short-term business professionals attracted by renting an Airbnb for a few nights in an established neighborhood with a welcoming host family and breakfast included, instead of at characterless hotels near the airport or freeways.
These units can take different structural forms but are typically detached. They can be garage conversions, stand-alone units, attic or basements or be connected to the main house. They typically have their own entrance, separate from the primary house and include a kitchen, bathroom and living space. These units can be rented year-round and add a lot of value to a property.
In cities all across the country, these units are dotted throughout single-family neighborhoods and are either rented for longer-term periods or listed on vacation rental sites like Airbnb. In Bakersfield, these units already exist in many parts of town.
And for the past few months, Bakersfield City Council members have been engaged in debate about the details of a proposed city ordinance regarding what are officially called "accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs. These spaces are often colloquially referred to as “mother-in-law units” or “granny flats.” Many argue they are a way to address California's housing shortage. I agree with supporters that a city ordinance further promoting local ADUs would serve as a modern update to our zoning ordinances and be in line with state laws that encourage them. However, a vocal group of opponents see ADUs as a threat to the character and livability of their single-family neighborhoods.
One resident noted in a letter to the editor published in this newspaper just last week that the city should require ADUs be owner-occupied. This defeats a main purpose of ADUs as income-generating and is an extreme limit on an otherwise clever solution to housing problems. This restriction is not narrowly tailored; it does not use the least restrictive means to achieve its purpose. And it’s a poison pill to drop into our city’s ADU rules; it makes it nearly impossible for homeowners to secure home loans to finance ADU construction. Owner occupancy sharply limits the value appraisers can assign to a house and ADU and makes the property less valuable as loan collateral.
California state law allows homeowners in single-family neighborhoods to build an ADU as long as there’s room for it on their property. Recent state laws have made it easier and cheaper to construct or convert space into an ADU. Cities and counties can customize the state regulations to some extent. The city of Los Angeles is working on its own ADU ordinance; many cities have already approved guidelines for the dwellings, including Santa Monica, Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach.
Single-family subdivisions and large garden apartment complexes no longer meet all of our housing needs. We must apply creative solutions to offset the high costs of development by repurposing the existing built environment. This will preserve farmland from development and more efficiently use our infrastructure. This can be accomplished through more innovative housing practices, by allowing the private sector to work in new ways. Government cannot solve the affordable housing issue on its own by building low-income housing; this is an expensive solution for taxpayers.
ADUs are in no way a threat to single-family home ownership. Encouraging ADUs will increase the housing supply without hurting single-family home values or the character of neighborhoods.
Due to changing demographics, household sizes in the United States have decreased. But instead of seeing a trend in smaller homes, new single-family home footprints have gotten larger. Simultaneously, small apartment sizes are more in-demand. This presents a gap for ADUs to fill, while helping homeowners generate income from their properties. ADUs could help the community address affordable housing shortages without requiring government build low-income housing, an incomplete solution which is expensive for taxpayers.
To better illustrate the need for this housing type, there is the "missing middle concept.” It describes the need for small, infill, single- and multi-unit housing options, not just new single-family and large complexes. Filling in this missing middle allows us to utilize existing infrastructure and is more environmentally friendly and better for existing industry than continuing to develop on farmland in our Central Valley.
More information can be found at: missingmiddlehousing.com
While these thoughts and opinions are entirely my own, in an effort to remain fully transparent, I should note that my father-in-law, Bakersfield City Councilmember Bob Smith, has advocated for making Bakersfield’s regulations more ADU-friendly.