Commentary: How granny flats help with California’s housing shortage


California — and San Diego County in particular — has an affordable housing shortage. Coming to a consensus on adequately addressing this shortage has understandably hit speed bumps due to concerns about the environment, public safety and other quality-of-life issues.

However, doing nothing is not an option, not at a time when rents and home sale prices are continuing to rise and threatening the financial stability of more Californians. We believe that people across the political spectrum at the state and local governments must work together to encourage responsible housing solutions whenever possible.

In Encinitas, one of the city council’s top priorities is updating its granny flat policy to help local residents manage evolving housing needs and address the city’s affordable housing shortage. The city believes it has hundreds of granny flats that homeowners have on their properties without permits. We want those units to have the proper permits, but most importantly to ensure they are safe for human habitation.

We want to bring existing “granny flats” out of the shadows and make their creation and permitting easier. A granny flat (known as an accessory dwelling unit or ADU) is a self-contained living area for one or two people typically located on the property of a single-family home.

The granny flat can be attached to the main home or detached. A granny flat is called that because it is used by some families to house elderly parents who desire privacy but want to be close to their adult children and young grandchildren. The small units are not limited to grandparents of course — they can also include other relatives, in-home health care providers, and family friends. The units offer many benefits, such as providing needed income to homeowners and meeting needs of multigenerational families.

To encourage new and responsible granny flat construction, Encinitas waived all city fees for the development of such units and is creating a “permit-ready” program where the city provides plans for already approved units. Because the granny flats are designed to provide long-term housing, not serve the tourist market, owners who wish to offer them for rent must do so for at least 30 days. This ensures that the units will not be used as vacation rentals, thus avoiding the public safety problems that some short-term rentals have raised in other communities.

We believe that some owners rent their granny flats at below-market rate, which means those rentals can qualify as affordable housing. While Encinitas has done everything it could on its own to responsibly increase and regulate granny flats, it still needs help from the state Legislature to update existing law to ensure that it has the clear authority to further respond to local needs.

That is why we have partnered together to craft Senate Bill 1226 (Bates) this year that will help not just Encinitas, but any other city that would like to permit granny flats. The bill would direct the California Building Standards Commission to adopt a building standard that would clarify the authority of local governments to permit an existing granny flat based on the year the granny flat was constructed. For example, if the granny flat was constructed in 1986, the building inspector could use the code in effect in 1986 to issue a permit. The bill would allow homeowners to bring unpermitted granny flats out of the shadows and up to code, ensuring basic safety and protection of community character.

We are encouraged that the state Senate approved SB 1226 on a unanimous vote in May and the bill is currently pending consideration in the Assembly. We are hopeful that Governor Brown will sign the bill should it reach his desk.

Granny flats may not be a housing solution for every community. But what SB 1226 will do is give local governments an additional tool to help accommodate the housing needs of their citizens.

Ultimately, SB 1226 is about keeping residents safe, encouraging the construction of more affordable housing, and preserving local control.

We hope the Legislature and the governor will seize this opportunity to help move our state safely forward.

Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, represents the 36th District in the California State Senate. The district covers northern San Diego and southern Orange counties. Blakespear is the mayor of Encinitas.