Accessory Dwelling Unit approvals pick up across Napa County

March 22, 2022 by Edward Booth in the Napa Valley Register

The city of Napa saw a boom in Accessory Dwelling Unit applications last year and approved a total 60 of applications, 15 more than in 2020.

“We are doing exceedingly well in ADU production, with our highest number of units permitted since we’ve been keeping track of such data,” said senior planner Michael Walker at a Napa City Council meeting last week.

The city’s quantity of approved applications has grown steadily over the years, from three approved applications in 2016 and 17 in 2017, to the 60 in 2021, according to city data.

The city’s ADU results are part of a general trend of increasing ADU applications across Napa County’s larger jurisdictions. St. Helena, for example, approved 20 applications in 2021, an increase from the 16 approved a year prior. American Canyon likewise approved 6 applications in 2021, double the 3 approved in 2020.

Yountville and Calistoga are each approving a handful of ADU applications each year, with the quantity of ADU approvals for both jurisdictions staying relatively steady throughout the past five years.

Accessory Dwelling Units — also known as “granny flats” or “in-law units” among numerous other occasionally confusing synonyms — are small and self-contained living units that can either be detached or attached to an adjacent single-family home. As a result of California legislation, approvals of such units are done through an administrative, pre-set process that doesn’t include discretionary review. 6-5, series-clinching win on Sunday.

A statewide boom in ADU approvals started with Senate Bill 1069, a California law that required local municipalities to relax regulations on ADU approvals. Framed by legislators as one side of a multi-pronged effort to address California’s housing crisis, the law was passed in 2016 and came into effect in 2017.

Several years of follow-up legislation have helped to smooth the application process even further, generally by removing barriers that may exist in the local government approval process. For example, Assembly Bill 3182 — which came into effect last year — requires local governments to approve completed ADU applications if they haven’t taken action on the application within 60 days.

That same law also required local governments to allow for administrative approvals of one ADU and one junior ADU — essentially a unit that’s 500 square feet or smaller that exists entirely within a single-family residence, like a garage — per single-family lot.

Renée Schomp, director of the Napa Sonoma ADU Center — an information hub for homeowners looking to build such units — said the center is focusing on overcoming the more practical barriers that get in the way  of people deciding to build an ADU.

The legislative action had to happen for ADU production to start moving forward, she said, but roadblocks such as financing and the complicated process of applying for an ADU at a local government office still exist. Based on the center’s research, Schomp added, many homeowners that consider building an ADU encounter considerable difficulty moving forward with the project because of those roadblocks.

“Suddenly a homeowner becomes a developer for the first time,” Schomp said. “The more we can do to support the homeowner, so they don’t have to become an expert, the better.”

Terence Mulligan, president and CEO of the Napa Valley Community Foundation — which, along with the Sonoma County Community foundation, was behind the creation of the ADU Center — said ADUs are an important part of taking on Napa’s lack of affordable and workforce housing.

The city’s rental unit vacancy rate has hovered below 2% in recent years, hitting 1.7% last year despite the addition of hundreds of apartment units. Napa’s zoning code identifies a vacancy rate of below 5% as a rental housing shortage, and any rate below 3% as a severe shortage. That compares to a roughly 5.6% national vacancy rate, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“We view the lack of workforce housing to actually be the primary driver of poverty in Napa because so many families spend so much of their income on housing, more than is sustainable,” Mulligan said. “If you’re spending more than 30% of your take-home gross on putting a roof over your head, you’re in trouble. And lots of people spend more than 50%.”

The community foundation announced it had partnered with Redwood Credit Union last week to create a construction loan program specifically for ADUs, which Mulligan said will potentially open the door to thousands of people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford constructing an ADU.

Mulligan added that, because of the price of local land — and the community backlash to large housing projects — the traditional way of competing for and securing government funding for affordable housing isn’t sufficient for Napa to fill its housing needs.

“The cost of land is too precious here for us to solely rely on the traditional way of trying to get a little money on the table from government,” Mulligan said. “One thing that really appeals to us about this whole other way, this complimentary way of ADUs, is it is a private, citizen-led response to this big public problem of not enough workforce housing.”

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