November 8, 2021 by Ethan Varian
Sonoma County has loosened restrictions on in-law units to encourage construction of the “naturally affordable” small-scale homes in hopes of putting a dent in the region’s intensifying housing shortage.
The Board of Supervisors in September approved updates to the county’s permitting rules for accessory dwelling units, also known as ADUs or granny units — backyard cottages homeowners can build on their property, often for family or friends, or to put up for rent.
Some of the changes include removing minimum parcel size limits, easing parking space requirements, speeding up permit application times and allowing the units on multifamily properties.
“We’re hopeful this becomes one tool in our toolbox to tackle our housing crisis,” said Bradley Dunn, policy manager with Permit Sonoma.
During the pandemic, the region’s already high housing costs have skyrocketed as homebuyers continue to flood into Sonoma County and the region works to replace the roughly 6,000 homes lost to wildfires over the past four years, about half of which have been rebuilt.
In September, the median price for single-family houses in the county hit $755,000, a 5% increase from the same month last year and a 16% jump from September 2019, according to data from Compass Real Estate in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
Rental prices have also spiked. Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city, saw rents increase 11% year-over-year in October to $1,565 a month for a one-bedroom, according to the rental website Apartment List.
The median rental price of an accessory dwelling unit in the Bay Area is well above that at $2,200 a month, according to a study by Center for Community Innovation at UC Berkeley, though rents vary depending on location and unit size.
While Sonoma County’s updated ADU ordinance for unincorporated communities took effect in October, officials have been employing the new regulations since the start of 2020. That’s when all California cities and counties were required to bring their permitting policies into compliance with state laws aimed at making it easier to build the units.
“We needed to bring those regulations up to date on paper, although we were already using them in the real world,” Dunn said.
Still, Sonoma County’s ordinance continues restricting ADUs in rural areas where public water service isn’t available and groundwater for wells is limited. It requires new units there to offset water usage by adding efficiency features such as rainwater capture.
The maximum size of an ADU for the unincorporated county remains 1,200 square feet in most cases.
For now, it’s unclear whether the changes will lead to significantly more accessory dwelling units in the county’s unincorporated areas, home to about a third of the total county population with around 150,000 people.
In 2020, Sonoma County permitted 74 new in-law units, according to county data — four fewer than in 2019.
Renée Schomp, director of the Napa Sonoma ADU Center, a nonprofit supporting development of the units, said the lack of permitting progress is likely due to supply chain issues and general uncertainty during the pandemic.
Schomp’s group is currently working with North Bay jurisdictions to come up with plans to help homeowners navigate the permitting process under the new state framework.
“In short, we are very optimistic there will be an increase (in permits),” she said.
Aaron Jobson, a co-founder of Homes for Sonoma, a nonprofit that designs and rents out in-law units, said the rule changes may have a relatively minor effect since most permitting ordinances in the county have been geared toward getting the units built.
“Our local area was already working to that end and somewhat of a model for making ADUs work,” Jobson said.
Since its founding in the aftermath of the 2017 firestorm, Homes for Sonoma has developed seven prefabricated accessory dwelling units in Santa Rosa for wildfire survivors. It’s now launching a program to partner with homeowners to build and rent out the units on their properties.
The 430-square-foot, one-bedroom units each cost between $100,000 and $150,000 to build.
That’s far less than the average cost of building what’s considered affordable housing in the region, nearly $500,000 per unit, according to an analysis by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. Developers and experts attribute that expense to complex processes for securing public funding, stringent environmental reviews, and the high price of land, labor and materials, among other reasons.
Homes for Sonoma Executive Director Robin Stephani said low-cost accessory dwellings can help middle-class residents afford to stay in the North Bay and give them the chance to live close to family, even if the units alone won’t solve the region’s housing crisis.
“It’s going to be a relatively small number (of units). However, it will be a big impact for the people who are living in them,” Stephani said.