Despite strong opposition from local advocates for affordable housing, a divided Davis City Council approved a measure Tuesday that would allow granny flats to partially count toward the city’s affordable housing obligations, even without any affordable regulations tied to them.
Accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, are secondary homes built on the same parcel as a larger house as a form of infill development.
The controversial provision was among several significant changes the council made to the city’s affordable housing ordinance Tuesday, which also included introducing in-lieu fees that a developer can pay to avoid building affordable units.
The council hopes the changes will encourage infill development and add variety to the affordable housing supply in Davis, while also creating a revenue stream for the city to fund its affordable housing program in the face of evaporating state and federal subsidies.
But while other amendments to the ordinance received some scrutiny Tuesday, the accessory dwelling unit change was by far the most contested issue of the evening.
Members of the affordable housing community were most concerned that granny flats would not be required to be rented at affordable rates — or rented at all — and that the city couldn’t guarantee the units would be occupied by low-income families.
They argued that by allowing developers to build the units instead of true affordable housing, it would strip away the benefit of boasting an inclusionary requirement, which binds them to dedicating an affordable housing component to their projects.
“Most accessory units are utilized as housing for higher-income professionals and a large percentage of them are used as home offices. These upscale accessory units in Davis also carry high rents,” said Jessica Merrill, a representative of the Sacramento Housing Alliance.
“The inclusion of accessory units also increases the value and sales price of homes in new subdivisions, but provides little to no value to low-income families and low-wage workers — the very people the inclusionary housing ordinance was designed to support.”
Mike Webb, the city’s community development director, countered by arguing that because accessory dwelling units are inherently affordable, it would be appropriate to allow them to count toward the inclusionary requirement of a project, up to 50 percent of the requirement.
Webb also said that monitoring and enforcing affordable rates for these types of units is difficult and costly for both the city and the property owner.
Council members Rochelle Swanson and Brett Lee, who made the motion to approve the staff recommendation — with an amendment that the city look at the feasibility of adding individual utility meters to the granny flats — were joined by Mayor Joe Krovoza in voting to approve the change.
“By getting this kind of diversity and trying, instead of waiting, to help our lower-income communities and (getting) more housing built by going to rentals, we can start helping now,” Swanson said.
Swanson also pointed out that the granny flats must pass performance standards to qualify for the credit. They must be between 400 and 650 square feet, have direct access from an alley, street or greenbelt, and feature common usable interior space to accommodate family living.
In staff’s report to the council, they detail a survey taken of property owners in Davis who have built granny flats. Fifty-two of the 131 property owners responded and half of those who responded do rent their units, many at affordable rates. That statistic drove the staff to recommend the half-credit.
But Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk and Councilman Lucas Frerichs — who initially moved to strike the granny flat half-credit provision — were not sold that this was the right move for the city’s affordable housing policy.
“You can’t really tell whether the folks that are living there are truly low-income and that’s what I think is getting me worried,” Wolk said. “I think that’s certainly what gets the housing advocates worried and I don’t hear anything tonight that convinces me otherwise.
“In terms of satisfying affordability requirements, I do think that the ADUs don’t get us there. I think it is a step back in that sense.”
Added Frerichs: “I love ADUs and advocated for them heavily in the past, but not when there’s no monitoring or insurance that affordable housing is actually going to be produced.”
Meanwhile, for in-lieu fees, the council also decided that, at its discretion, it would allow developers proposing a project with more than 200 units to pay fees only up to 50 percent of the affordable housing requirement.
That provision essentially applies only to The Cannery project that the council will consider later this year, as Davis does not have the space within city limits to accommodate further large developments. The Cannery, at Covell Boulevard and J Street, is proposed to feature both accessory dwelling units and other types of affordable housing.
For smaller projects, in-lieu fees could pay for an entire affordable housing requirement, though it would still be at the discretion of the council. The fee amount has not yet been determined and requires a public hearing for approval, though staff recommended about $50,000 per affordable unit.
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