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Local ADU experts answer questions about new laws

More than 120 people attended “The Nuts and Bolts of ADUs in Los Altos,” a panel discussion the Los Altos Affordable Housing Alliance hosted last week, intent on learning about new state legislation on accessory dwelling units and its impact on city policy.

Los Altos planning services manager Guido Persicone, on his third go-around rewriting ADU regulations for various cities, prefaced brief roundups of each ADU-related bill that became law Jan. 1 – Senate Bill 13 and Assembly Bills 68, 587, 670, 671 and 881 – by offering the reason ADUs have become so popular over the past few years: With a gross domestic product nearly the size of the entire state of Colorado, Santa Clara County faces a severe jobs-to-housing imbalance. In the past year alone, 55,000 jobs were created while only 7,000 new housing units were built.

In response to the trend, state legislators passed 12 bills related to ADUs or junior ADUs (JADUs), which can exist within the confines of a main house, since 2016. Any conflicting language in the bills now supersedes Los Altos’ regulations, as described in its Municipal Code. The city is in the process of rewriting its requirements, which will soon be brought to the city council for review, community development director Jon Biggs said.

“We will be recommending that the council adopts this ordinance on an Etch-A-Sketch, because it’s probably going to change,” Persicone joked.

Los Altos city staff are focusing on AB 68 and 881. AB 68 regulates lot coverage and size, and requires that a completed ADU application must be approved within 60 days, unless construction impacts part of the main structure. AB 881 deals with owner-occupancy requirements previously associated with an ADU; now, owners don’t have to live in the main house or the ADU as a condition for approval.

As they grapple with the legislation in the interim, city officials detailed standards they are using in the ministerial process to approve completed applications for ADUs. According to Persicone, the process can take months because of the city’s “onerous” building and other codes. Despite delays, conforming ADUs and JADUs are permitted in all zoning districts that allow single-family or multi-family housing. Currently, a single-family home is allowed an 800-square-foot detached ADU or a 500-square-foot JADU within the house.

Pro-tips

Persicone answered attendees’ questions about the city’s future policy, such as whether the daylight plane restriction would be changed (it’s totally null now, he said) and how gas utility setup would be handled (upcoming REACH codes, as drafted, would require all utilities be electric, Biggs added). 

Biggs and panelists Fathia Macauley of Housing Trust Silicon Valley, Greg Popovich of Goldbar Builders LLC, John Geary of Abodu and Jessica Resmini of ADU Collective explained to the crowd how their agencies worked toward an overriding goal: to build more ADUs across the Bay Area to alleviate the housing crisis and/or provide flexibility for families and their living situations in the future.

Biggs said he understands the new “mishmash” of regulations is hard to follow. During a recent meeting, Los Altos city staff argued among themselves about the meaning of a section of one of the new laws. Still, he noted, the city is doing what it can through tools like the panel discussion to educate local residents on the upcoming policy.

Popovich offered attendees free site evaluations.

Geary, co-founder of a company that makes prefabricated ADUs and often transports them to clients’ backyards via crane, said people interested in prefab ADUs should make sure that they conform with the state’s Housing and Community Development code, not the federal Housing and Urban Development code.

Resmini advised attendees to always start at the building department, bringing plans and questions about building an ADU to the counter at city hall, as the rules often change.

“The good news is over the next couple months these rules are going to get solidified and we will have clear direction,” she said. “This is a really exciting time.”

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