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City council sets square foot limit on back houses

The Claremont City Council unanimously passed an ordinance relaxing restrictions on building back houses, but some residents are not quite on board.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), better known as back houses or granny flats, have been identified by the state as one way to alleviate the housing crisis. The new ordinance allows Claremonters with enough land to build ADUs up to 700 square feet.

City planner Nikola Hlady presented the new plan to the council, which was the result of multiple meetings between the planning and architectural commissions.

Under the new plan, any property 6,000 square feet or larger can house an ADU if the property owner wishes to build one. The size of the ADU, however, depends on where you live—properties in north Claremont, where the lot sizes are generally larger, can build an ADU up to 700 square feet, while property owners in the Village, Arbol Verde or south Claremont are limited to 400 square feet.

State law notes that property owners could build an ADU up to 1,200 square feet, but the size of the back houses can be left up to local cities to decide.

The plan also allows greater influence by the city’s commissions. Claremonters can get their ADU project approved by the city if they tick all the boxes required, or they can bring the plans to the architectural or planning commissions for additional review if they want to build a bigger or different kind of ADU, or if they want to build on a smaller lot.

The design standards for city review have grown from five to ten, according to Mr. Hlady. Those include architectural style, colors and materials, scale, roofing style, appearance from the street, privacy, landscaping and impacts to historic structures and existing trees.

The result, he noted, is aimed to allow an ADU that fits in with the character of its neighborhood.

The owner of the property must reside either in the main house or the back house while the other is rented. Short-term rentals for ADUs, meaning those who stay in a home less than 30 days such as an AirBnb, are prohibited.

The new ordinance also has language that would make ADUs more affordable for those who qualify. A $4,400 “park dedication fee” for all new units built in the city could be waived if a covenant, which requires that yearly rent of the ADU is less than 30 percent of the annual household income over a 30-year period, is recorded against the property title.

Architectural commission chair Mark Schoeman and planning commission chair Richard Rosenbluth both praised the new plans. Mr. Rosenbluth called the ordinance a “balance” of going the easier route with the city or to try their luck at getting their ADU approved by the commissions while also satisfying affordable housing requirements.

“We’ve heard a lot about the Claremont way and the Claremont process. This has gone through the full Claremont process to get to where it is right now,” he said. “And I hope you will find it’s to your liking and good for the city.”

Public comment, however, was not as praiseworthy. Several commenters decried the restrictions on size, with Paul Steffen and Jim Keith claiming that a 400 square foot unit was too small and would discourage people from building.

“I predict if you will go this way you will have very few units created, you will have fewer people housed in those units and it seems schizophrenic when we’re trying to provide more housing,” Mr. Keith said.

Claremont resident Matthew Maldonado noted his in-laws were planning to move in with him after being priced out of Los Angeles. A 400 square-foot unit, he said, would be too small for them.

“I appreciate the work that everybody did, but try to live in a 400 square foot apartment yourself,” he said. “Hopefully you guys can reconsider.”

Former councilmember Joe Lyons questioned if the new ordinance would pass the state’s review—perhaps it would be seen as another extension of a “not in my backyard” mentality that is pervasive in many communities when it comes to new development.

He noted that Claremont, especially in the Village, is accustomed to back houses, but, “We seem to be very averse to extending that at a time when affordable housing is at such a critical deficit.”

On the other side of the coin, Karen Rosenthal, who has a 400 square foot ADU on her property she rents out, noted that a back house of that size would work “if it’s designed properly.”

In an email sent to the Claremont city councilmembers on Monday, January 28, Bob Gerecke said he was concerned that the ordinance will actually inhibit construction of ADUs—400 square feet, he said, was “unmarketable.” He suggested removing the square footage limits in favor of a ratio between the main house and the back house.

“This would give ADUs equal treatment with other construction, while retaining in force our city’s existing lot coverage limits,” he said.

At the meeting, Mr. Hlady defended the sizes, noting that part of the ordinance was to create a clear “dominant-subservient” relationship between the main house and the back house, and not a situation where the back house is the same size or potentially overshadows the main house.

“[ADUs are] intended to be subservient housing on an existing lot that we are trying to make easier to develop because there’s a housing crunch in the state of California,” he said.

Acting City Attorney Joseph Larsen, when asked by the council if the new ordinance could be denied by the state, noted the law is relatively new and “everybody’s trying to feel their way through,” but it could “potentially” be denied.

In her comments, Councilmember Jennifer Stark appreciated the balancing of “neighborhood integrity” while addressing the state’s housing crisis, and said 400 square feet was “not ridiculously small” if you live in an urban area.

“We are moving into a time where we have to accept that becoming more full, becoming more dense, is a necessity to accommodate more people,” she said. “However, I think there’s a way to do it where we’re still maintaining a Claremont integrity.”

Councilmembers Jed Leano and Ed Reece both supported the framework of the ordinance, but worried about whether or not the restrictions on size and approval would discourage people from building ADUs.

Mr. Leano called for a way to track the amount of people who decide not to build, as a way to possibly tweak the ordinance in the future, something that Mr. Reece also supported. Mayor Corey Calaycay noted that process would be “problematic to assume it would be easy to track that.”

Mr. Hlady said the city would put together a FAQ about the city vs. commission process, and suggested keeping track of phone calls as a way to determine who goes forward with building an ADU and who does not.

Mr. Calaycay called for a formal review of the ordinance up to a year from now, and Mr. Larsen suggested adding that language to the ordinance at its second reading next week.

City declares emergency shelter crisis

The city also declared an “emergency shelter crisis,” in order to qualify for homeless services funds from the county.

Human Services Director Anne Turner told the council the declaration would make the city eligible for a chunk of the $3 million from county programs, which would help with services that help the homeless, including creating transitional beds for those who are moving out of the CHAP program.

Former councilmember Mr. Lyons told the council during public comment that it was a positive step forward in the city’s fight against homelessness.

“This is, I think, at least in the foreseeable future the last of the opportunities, so being in line for it will be very helpful to the effort moving forward,” he said.

The council unanimously passed the declaration. The next city council meeting will take place on February 12.

—Matthew Bramlett

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