December 21, 2018 By Howard Yune
Napa is continuing to give out more permits for residential add-ons to existing homes – but city planners will continuing looking for ways to lower the hurdles for those scared away from building such cheaper-to-rent annexes for fear of high fees and red tape.
Twenty-one building permits have been approved this year to build the small-scale homes known as accessory dwelling units, up from 17 in 2017 and just three in each of the two previous years, planning officials told the city Planning Commission on Thursday. The increase follows steps by Napa and the state to drop various permit fees on housing additions smaller than 500 square feet, which can be created from outbuildings or spare bedrooms.
Forty-four people have applied to build such second units in 2018, up from 31 a year ago and 18 in 2016.
City leaders have increasingly supported lower fees and streamlined permitting for so-called granny units as a relatively easy way to boost the housing supply for those whose incomes fall short of Napa’s ever-rising rents and home sale prices. Still, officials found room for improvement – especially in the time used by planning staff to review building plans.
“We realize these processes are duplicative,” senior planner Michael Walker told the commission of the current review system, in which applicants usually wait one to two months for an administrative permit before waiting two to three months for a building permit.
Despite movement to speed the progress on second dwellings, one resident told planners that work remains to be done, pointing to her still-unbuilt accessory unit in northwest Napa.
“We would love to do it, we have the land, but we don’t have the $90,000,” said Conchita Marusich. “ADUs sound like a great idea but it’s not going to happen unless we get the costs down.”
Planning officials in Napa face the same headwinds as other Bay Area communities – a shortage of construction labor and materials compounded by housing losses during the 2017 wildfires – and face more challenges in keeping costs down for smaller home construction, according to Commissioner Paul Kelley, a local architect.
“You scale it down, and the permit cost (as a percentage of the total cost) expands almost exponentially,” he said. “The issue is, it seems the city has taken it standard review of conditions for a 2,500-square-foot home and applied it to these products that are much smaller and much more simplistic. … An applicant shouldn’t have to hire an architect just to build an ADU.”
Planners on Thursday discussed ideas for speeding the approval of second housing units, including a concise checklist informing homeowners of all the requirements in advance. Such a template could ease permitting for about three-fourths of potential second-dwelling locations, Commissioner Beth Painter suggested.
Another city goal in the coming months will be to make information easier for homeowners to find and understand, according to Housing Manager Lark Ferrell. Napa is in talks with the Napa Valley Community Foundation on steps such as creating an online calculator to predict the cost of a second unit, as well as increasing the amount of permit information available on city websites, she said.
Commissioner Gordon Huether recommended Napa go a step further and assign a “coach or shepherd” as a liaison to residents looking into accessory housing, particularly those who have never taken on a construction project before. “It’s a really intimidating experience to get a permit just to do a home remodel, let alone an ADU,” he said.
Also this year, Napa has issued its first permits for housing affordable to very-low-income tenants – those making less than half the local median income – since at least 2015, in the form of two apartment complexes previously approved by the city. The city gave the green light to the Stoddard West Apartments, which will consist of 51 rent-limited units off Soscol Avenue, in 2017 and another 20 restricted units at Napa Courtyards on Coombsville Road approved in 2016.