The ADU Story

In 2003 California’s state legislature passed AB 1866 amending “sections of the Government code to encourage the creation of second units…” The intent of the bill reads: “The Legislature finds and declares that second units are a valuable form of housing in California. Second units provide housing for family members, students, the elderly, in-home health care providers, the disabled, and others, at below market prices within existing neighborhoods. Homeowners who create second units benefit from added income, and an increased sense of security.”

There was already a full-on housing crisis in 2003, and things were predicted to get much worse. Planners and legislators were looking for ways to provide more housing within the developed area and bring people closer to jobs and amenities. Los Angeles had sprawled to a metro area of three-hour commutes, and yet vast areas were zoned as low-density single family residential (R1) exclusively. Little buildable space remained, and sites allowing multi-family were built out.

Legislators looking for an opportunity to open up some of this low density residential land passed AB 1866 in an early attempt to encourage and to give permission for cities to loosen up zoning in some single family neighborhoods, and to “ministerially consider second-unit applications in accordance with State standards.” It also asked (not required) municipalities and districts to “allow identification of realistic capacity for second-units in addressing a locality’s share of regional housing needs.”

AB 1866 did not succeed in promoting suburban infill. To the contrary, many citizens were enraged at what they perceived as a threat to their way of life. Cities all over California fought the concept of adding any density to their neighborhoods, enacting tough restrictions and steep fees to make it impractical to add a rental unit in a single-family zone.

One example: in 2017 a Pasadena homeowner who wanted to build a 900 square foot ADU was billed by the city for over $42,000 in fees prior to construction, including a Transportation Improvement Fee of $9,800, a New Residence Impact fee of $22,800, and a $2,800 school fee.

Overcoming Determined Resistance

Over the last two decades the housing crisis has deepened. In desperation, and trying to provide some relief, Sacramento has enacted a number of bills to counter the roadblocks municipalities kept erecting to stymie any increase in density. The final blow to local control over second units in R1 neighborhoods came with the signing of SB 13 in 2019. Now ADUs are no longer subject to most restrictive municipal and district codes and ordinances. No more “Impact” or “New Residence” fees, no minimum lot size, now just a four-foot minimum setback all around, no more need to comply with floor-area-ratio, open space, or lot coverage restriction, no parking requirement (even to replace a converted garage), and units can be at least 16 feet tall. If it seems Draconian, it is; single-family exclusive zoning is now extinct in California.

This change was propelled through the State legislature largely with support of young professionals and recent graduates who face a hard time finding decent places to live. Even with two good incomes, many families cannot save enough to buy a home. Meanwhile, some low income residents fall out of the market entirely and end up living marginal lives or homeless. Some cram families into tiny apartments. Old working class neighborhoods gentrify as they fill with people who have the scratch to pay high rents. Construction of new low-to-moderate income apartments barely dents the need. Within the Los Angeles conurbation there is little vacant land to develop, and land zoned for apartments is particularly scarce.

Will a proliferation of ADUs change Altadena? Surely it will, over time. We will see more people, more cars parked on the street, and back gardens will be reduced. It’s starting to happen now, it will be gradual but inevitable. Perhaps if zoning changes had been embraced two decades ago with AB 1866 we might have worked out a solution to encourage infill regulated to minimize impacts on neighborhoods.

But entrenched opposition by municipalities was loud, nasty, and legalistic. Thus the heavy hand of the State descended in the form of a slew of Assembly and Senate bills to insure that every homeowner would be entitled to build an ADU or convert a garage no matter how small the lot.

The Future of ADUs in Altadena

Altadena is in better shape to absorb more back-houses, converted garages, and new ‘Junior ADU’ apartments than most cities because of its relative low density. It already supports an ecology of flag lots, backyard houses, and garage apartments. A heterogeneous mix of architectural styles and widely varying house and lot sizes are part of Altadena’s allure. Fitting small dwellings in among the trees and shrubbery could accommodate many units without significantly altering the feeling on the street. That homeowners will make these environmental modifications incrementally will add some idiosyncratic additions to neighborhoods, and this being Altadena, we can trust that many will be charming and artistic. Others, not so much of course.
Over a long lifetime I’ve seen homes demolished and replaced by dingbats and huge apartment blocks, completely transforming neighborhoods in West LA, Pasadena, and the Bay Area. ADUs are not that. However, siting structures in ways that are insensitive to neighbors causes anger and discord, and this is sure to happen when a new unit shades a next door vegetable garden or blocks a mountain view. Angry neighbors make life hell; even if you can legally do what you want, it always works out best to be considerate.

Will ADUs solve our housing crisis?
No, of course not, but they will help.

For one thing, many won’t be rented, but used as work spaces, studios, guest suites, to house caregivers, or for family overflow. (It is illegal to use them for short term rental.)

Some dread the coming of ADUs, this is a significant change to our environment that they did not sign on for when they purchased their homes, and do not condone. I sympathize to a degree, change can be rough and can bring conflict. But it’s a done deal, ADUs are here and more are coming.

Personally, I see many advantages to a backyard rental beyond monetary rewards, someone to watch the house, feed the cat and maybe report an irrigation leak when I’m on vacation. I see opportunities for elderly to age in place with a care-giver, or to move out to the backyard and let the next generation raise kids in the family home. I see a prospect of more young people joining our community as a good thing, they will bring life and variety and patronize local businesses while they enjoy a pleasant leafy environment. And homeowners will be able to add value to their properties and gain income from what for most of us is our biggest lifetime investment.