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Recent accessory dwelling unit forum in Los Altos provides homeowners with options

Los Altos affordable housing advocates aim to show there are options beyond cities requiring developers to provide the occasional low-income unit.

In addition to renting rooms in established homes, supporters hosted a May 15 forum that promoted transforming accessory structures into living spaces.

The forum, which drew more than 100 local residents to the Los Altos Youth Center, featured a panel of experts advising attendees on current regulations and the process for creating accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

The Los Altos Affordable Housing Group organized the event. The group is a consortium of local nonprofit organizations, including Los Altos Community Foundation, the Los Altos Women’s Caucus and the local branches of the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters.

Craig Mizushima, chief impact officer with Housing Trust Silicon Valley, described the types of ADUs – attached, detached, garage conversions and junior ADUs. He noted that many people are interested in building ADUs.

According to Mizushima, some people finance their projects, which can be an obstacle because conventional home loans are not available. To make financing more accessible, he said the Housing Trust offers a three-year loan with the restriction that the rent for the ADU be affordable, currently less than approximately $2,000 monthly and further limited by the income of the renter.

Jon Biggs, community development director with the city of Los Altos, reviewed changes adopted by the city last year to make it easier to build ADUs. The changes allow for an increased ADU size of up to 1,200 square feet. Biggs said there are still restrictions based on lot coverage, floor area limits and setbacks. In addition, he said the approval process has been simplified. For projects that meet the guidelines, the process includes approval by the planning department and issuance of a building permit, with a quick turnaround. He recommended talking to a planner early in the process.

Eoin Matthews, with the home financing group Point, offered some insights into funding an ADU, both with conventional products and with a novel product offered by Point that provides funds with no debt and no monthly payments in return for a share of the home’s future equity.

Greg Popovich with Goldbar Builders described the design-build process that his company offers. He offered some useful information – attached units can help meet setback requirements but at added cost. He said garage conversions sound easy, but in nine out of 10 cases, it is less expensive to demolish the garage and start over.

Popovich also shared cost and time estimates: $325 per square foot and up, 14-60 days for design, up to 120 days for the permit approval process and 90-120 days to build. He added that it is relatively easy and quick to work in Los Altos.

Tax impacts and finances dominated the question-and-answer period with the panelists. Homeowners discovered that their property taxes could rise, but only on the value of improvement. With ADUs, renters can deduct expenses and depreciate the cost. For affordable units, Housing Trust Silicon Valley loans are available, but homeowners can charge market rate if they desire.

City officials said current setback rules still apply. And participants learned they can separate the main house from an ADU with a fence.

ADU fees include $595 for a plan check. The building permit fee is based on the cost of the project. There also are school impact fees – $3.79 per square feet shared by the high school and elementary districts – though they are waived if the ADU is less than 500 square feet.

For more information, visit housingtrustsv.org, point.com, goldbarbuilders.com or modernempathy.com.

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