They're as common as fire hydrants in some parts of town: small residential buildings typically built in backyards as a kind of annex to the main house. Some call them mother-in-law quarters.
To local homebuilders and state lawmakers, these "accessory dwelling units," or ADUs, present an opportunity to address California's housing shortage. But others see them as a menace threatening the character and livability of their single-family-home neighborhoods.
The sharp divergence between those views has come into focus lately as a proposal to promote construction of the units makes its way through Bakersfield city government.
The matter is scheduled to go before the City Council for a final vote Wednesday following the city Planning Commission's 5-0 vote Thursday to approve a proposal encouraging development of ADUs through amendments to a city ordinance adopted in 1994.
At the heart of the debate is the ever-controversial topic of housing density. Big-city residents might not mind living in an area where housing is built to maximize the number of people residing in a given block, but homeowners who bought into a quiet, low-density neighborhood generally like their space — and will fight to defend it.
The proposal approved by the Planning Commission would significantly loosen city rules regarding development of ADUs.
Besides changing their name from "second dwelling units" to accessory dwelling units, the plan would allow construction of such buildings on any residential lot, not just those with single-family homes on them, as long as the smaller unit has a separate entrance and independent living facilities.
The proposal would also waive a requirement that each ADU have a dedicated parking space in cases where the unit is a converted garage or is located within half a mile of public transit.
It would also allow accessory dwellings to be larger than previously permitted — up to 50 percent of the larger building's floor area, up from the current limit of 30 percent — though state law still limits their size to 1,240 square feet. And no longer would the main building have to be occupied by the property's owner.
In addition, the proposal would waive traffic impact fees that have been charged ADU developers, and instead would impose sewer connection fees based on the number of plumbing fixtures planned for the unit.
The proposal is generally in line with three different bills pending before the state Legislature. Among other provisions, those proposals are aimed at speeding approval of ADUs, waiving impact fees on such units totaling less than 750 square feet and doing away with impact fees for secondary dwellings located near public transit.
A city staff report outlined several potential "unintended consequences" if the changes are adopted. These include greater traffic and fewer available parking spaces near new ADUs, a shift in neighborhood character from single-family to "more of a multi-family feel," more people living or working at state-licensed residential care facilities in Bakersfield, and an added burden on a city sewer system infrastructure not built to handle so many new dwelling units.
Such consequences as possible but not necessarily likely, said Ward 4 City Councilman Bob Smith, who a year ago referred the matter of overhauling Bakersfield's ADU regulations to the council's Planning and Development Committee.
To him, ADUs make a lot of sense at a time when demand for housing is outpacing supply.
"The state believes, and I believe also, that there’s a number of reasons that are advantageous for the accessory dwelling units," he said. "It helps affordable housing. It can help with the housing crisis.”
Another supporter of changing Bakersfield's ADU rules is Dave Dmohowski, executive officer with the Home Builders Association of Kern County.
Noting that the units are common in some of Bakersfield's oldest neighborhoods, and that even former Mayor Mary K. Shell had one, Dmohowski said the proposal now under consideration would basically make it more economically feasible to expand housing opportunities in the city.
He said many local homebuilders are very supportive of the idea for that reason.
"The market is very, very receptive to having the flexibility of an extra room, that kind of a self-sufficient unit within a unit, for mothers-in-law, older parents, unemployed millennials or whatever," he said.
Some local homeowners see it very differently.
Stockdale Estates resident Joseph Kandle said he worries the proposal will be taken to an extreme in which everyone converts garages to house residents. He doesn't mind making room for mothers-in-law, he said, but he doesn't want to see his neighborhood become a rental community.
"It can allow, let’s say, the people with less income to come into the community," he said.
CREATING A QUAGMIRE
Kenneth Hersh, who also lives in Stockdale Estates and is opposed to the city proposal, said making changes to accommodate ADU developers could invite the kind of problems found in coastal neighborhoods, such as insufficient parking and single-family homes being converted into "mini-apartments."
"They're going to create a quagmire," he said. "They’re going to change the demographics in these once-sacred, you know, single-family dwelling residences."
What's more, Bakersfield doesn't face the same kind of confined development space that coastal cities do. He said there's plenty of room in southwest Bakersfield for development of new housing, he said.
"We have a lot of acreage here," he said.