Login to Claremont COURIER

VIEWPOINT: Some thoughts about accessory dwelling units

by Sue Schenk

Pretty much everyone agrees that California has a housing shortage, and that the lack is greatest in what is called “affordable housing.”

In an attempt to address this problem, the state now requires that owners of residential properties be allowed to build “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs), popularly known as “granny flats.”

Because the state realizes that each city is different in character and needs, it has left it up to cities to decide on the details of the rules to which ADUs must conform.

For quite some time, our planning commission, architectural commission, and city staff have been working on something that will work for Claremont. The main features are in brief:

1. There is a “ministerial path”: This streamlines the approval process so applicants do not need to go to the commissions for permission. What are its conditions? The first is on size: Any residential property of 6000 square feet or larger can build an ADU of 400 square feet. (separate or as an extension of the house), and larger properties can go up to 700 square feet. The second is on style: the ADU must be in a similar style to the existing house. This means that if a homeowner’s plan meets these conditions, staff can approve the project right away with minimum cost, and there is no requirement for the neighbors to be notified.

2. There is a “discretionary path”: If the homeowner wants a larger ADU than would be permitted, they can ask the planning commission to approve it, up to a maximum of 850 square feet. If the homeowner wants significant changes in the style of the ADU, then they would need to ask the architectural commission to approve them. In both of these cases, there would be some extra application fees and the neighbors would be required to be notified of the proposed plan.

3. The property owners must live either in the main house or the ADU so that we don’t see an increase in purely rental properties and an unwanted change to the look and feel of our single-family neighborhoods.

The new ordinance was brought before the council in January but it was not approved because the council wanted to consider some issues brought up by the public.

What are the concerns that have been raised?

1. Some people believe that there would be no market for units of 400 square feet and that even 850 square feet is too restricted. They would like there to be no limit or to have it attached to the lot size so that large lots could add very large ADUs.

My thoughts: Perhaps the lower limit could be raised a bit, but larger ADUs would go for a lot more money, pretty much removing their affordable aspect. 

To qualify as low rent, a one-bedroom apartment would need to be offered for around $800 per month, and very-low would need to cost even less. This is not likely with larger units. Also, if the ADU approaches the size of the original house, we would effectively be converting neighborhoods from single-family to duplexes. And how much say would neighbors have in these changes to their area?

Larger ADUs are also more likely to cause problems with parking. In addition, even small buildings are going to affect our natural resources by covering ground that formerly captured water and removing planting that absorbed carbon dioxide and produced oxygen.

Digging foundations near existing trees, the homeowner’s or the neighbor’s, can cause destabilization or death of a tree. Smaller ADUs will have less of an environmental effect.

2. One person was worried that, because her project goes a few feet over the ministerial limits, she would have to pay a lot more to get it approved.

My thoughts: There are ways to make sure that small differences don’t cause increased fees to kick in and staff made that clear when asked at the council meeting.

What we need is a balance that increases our supply of affordable housing without damaging the character of the city and, with a few tweaks, the proposed ordinance can give us that.

There will be a discussion session on Monday, March 11 at 6:30 p.m. at city hall. I urge you either to come and speak or send a letter to the council giving your views.