California is known to be in the midst of a housing crisis that is getting worse. We have built too few houses for decades, and those that are built are too expensive. The poor and the middle class suffer the most from the housing shortage and are increasingly priced out of houses and apartments near good jobs and schools.
This problem is well documented, so there is no excuse if our cities refuse to take measures to alleviate housing shortages. However, communities across California continue to reject the simplest housing reform: they allow owners to build additional housing units or ADUs, commonly known as "granny apartments" or "in-laws".
As early as 1981, the state parliament recognized that the lack of arable land is one of the main obstacles to increasing housing supply. Land is available for construction in California cities, but zone codes strictly limit the use of undeveloped land. To develop more capacity, California passed a nationwide law that legalized the manufacture of ADCs.
It was a win-win solution. By legalizing ADUs, the state unlocked previously unusable land, which led to a massive increase in potential housing. The owners could build a rental unit to help with their mortgage payments, or build a cottage where their parents could age. Better yet, the cost of an ADU is usually a fraction of that of an independent house or unit, which leads to the potential for new affordable housing.
However, many cities continued to oppose this modest reform, even though the housing shortage reached a critical mass. Therefore, the state pushed back again in 2016 and 2019 and changed the law so that cities allow the development of ADU as a property right and do not require it. State law instructs California cities to approve ADU permits that meet certain conditions, such as unit and lot sizes, without the lengthy and costly process of building permits.
Communities like Los Angeles and San Diego that have implemented this law have seen an increase in the production of new affordable housing. Nevertheless, the state's ADU mandate was not enough to convince many cities to take the plunge into separate apartments.
In San Marino, for example, Cordelia Donnelly applied for permission to build an ADU over her free-standing garage. Although their proposal met all government requirements, city officials rejected it because Donnelly's property was too small according to the city's strict standards, her proposed ADU was too large (the same space requirement as the garage), and her garage was too narrow to the house.
Donnelly has filed a San Marino ruling with the California Supreme Court, arguing that the city cannot adopt standards that prohibit exactly what the state legally allows. The court's decision to take her case will have a significant impact on a sensible housing reform.
The situation in San Marino shows one of the main causes of the real estate crisis: unnecessarily restrictive zoning laws mean that fewer houses are built, while those that are built carry higher prices. The word "unnecessary" is intended. The only justification for the city's strict ADU rules is to protect established neighborhoods from changes that could result from building more affordable houses. It is a policy of exclusion.
The exclusive nature of zoning single-family homes can be clearly seen in Village of Euclid v Ambler Realty Co. (1926), in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a zoning law that banned multi-family homes. The court concluded that apartments are a "parasite" because "they use the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district." Simply put, zoning excludes new people and opportunities to join the community. Such a policy has no place in modern society.
Donnelly's case shows that reforms are often marginalized. While the ADU option offers a limited number of homes for a limited number of people, legalizing it can open the door to a much broader reform that can boost housing production.
The state's decision to streamline the licensing process by recognizing a right to build ADUs in residential areas has eliminated much of the cost, time, and uncertainty that continues to drive housing costs and rent. If California extended the same type of recognition to other types of houses, the state could potentially transform a modest reform into a housing revolution.
This comment was originally published by The Hill on June 22, 2020.