Thanks to a new state law, California homeowners will have an easier time building small second dwellings on their property. The law gives owners of most single-family residences the option to construct accessory dwelling units—informally known as back houses, granny flats, or in-law units—as long as they comply with certain guidelines.
Approved by Governor Jerry Brown in September, the bill is intended to encourage the development of badly-needed new units of housing in markets where a lack of supply has driven up rental prices at alarming rates.
That’s good news for Los Angeles homeowners who have constructed or tried to construct such units in recent years. In February, a judge ruled that the city had been improperly permitting accessory dwellings for years, throwing the legal status of hundreds of the residences into question.
Eventually, the City Council agreed to grandfather in the improperly permitted dwellings, while recommitting to an old set of requirements for the second units. However, a December 30 memo from the Planning Department makes clear that those rules are now in conflict with the state law and should no longer apply.
What does all this mean?
For one thing, homeowners should be able to start building new accessory dwellings without any trouble. In the wake of the court decision, the city stopped issuing accessory dwelling permits for much of 2016.
The recent memo, however, clearly notes that, as of January 1, applicants can apply for permits as long as their proposed second dwellings meet the standards imposed by the state.
But city officials are already working on a set of local requirements that promise to be a bit stricter than those imposed by the state. On December 15, the City Planning Commission recommended new regulations for accessory dwellings to the City Council.
The city requirements would limit the size of accessory dwellings to 640 square feet or 50 percent of the square footage of the main house—whichever is larger—up to 1,200 square feet. The state requirements simply set a blanket limitation on the size of such units at 1,200 square feet. The LA-specific rules would considerably limit the possible scale of second units for many homeowners.
Other regulations being mulled by the city would prevent construction of such units on most properties in designated Hillside Areas.
It’s unclear at this point how many homeowners will elect to build new units, but many affordable housing scholars have argued the development of even small numbers of these units can have numerous positive benefits on an area’s housing market.
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