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Los Altos passes ADU laws

It’s getting easier for grandma to move into the backyard.

The Los Altos City Council approved two amended ordinances July 10, one governing the size of accessory structures in residential districts and another regulating accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as in-law units, granny units or secondary units.

According to Zach Dahl, city planning services manager, the revised ordinances bring the city up to the state’s standards, a move that eases restrictions to pave the way for additional housing in a tight market. Changes to the ordinances include:

• A size increase for an ADU from 800 square feet to 1,200 square feet.

• No minimum lot size for construction of an ADU (the lot previously had to be 15,000 square feet).

• No requirement that the owner reside on the property (the owner previously had to live on the site).

• A requirement of one parking space per ADU, unless there is public transit within half a mile, a car-share station on the block or the home is deemed historical or architecturally significant. The original ordinance mandated two parking spaces.

• Limiting accessory structures to 800 square feet. An accessory structure might be a pool house, shed or studio that does not have all of the amenities needed for habitation, such as a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.

Housing crunch

The loosened restrictions come at a time when many Bay Area resident are pushing for more housing and more affordable housing. The state passed legislation in 2017 that rendered Los Altos’ prior ordinances – a lot size requirement, an owner-occupancy requirement and a deed restriction for low-income housing – null. From Jan. 1, 2017, through July 10, 2018, the city’s ordinances were out of compliance. The amended ordinances conform with state law, which the city attorney said was necessary to avoid lawsuits.

The revised regulations enable a new ADU to be built, an existing structure like a garage to be converted into a dwelling unit or a portion of a current home to be converted into another dwelling unit. If a unit is physically separate from a house, it can total 1,200 square feet in size, including any basement space. However, if the ADU is attached to the home, part of the basement can be included in excess of the 1,200-square-foot limit.

While some residents expressed concerns about the effect of the relaxed regulations on their quality of life, Dahl noted that more dwelling units could make life better, not harder – for example, by allowing for multigenerational living and enabling caregivers to live near the people they’re caring for.

“The reality is that it’s an important housing component that’s really hard to come by in this community,” he said. “You’re not seeing a flood of renters. These are people who already work in this community and now they can live in this community.”

The amended ADU ordinance states that rentals must be for 30 days or longer, which should cut down on short-term rentals through companies like Airbnb, said Sue Russell, co-chairwoman of the League of Women Voters Housing Committee. As in the original ordinance, the square footage of the ADU must be less than half that of the primary home. Setbacks must meet the standards of the applicable zoning district, unless the ADU is constructed on an existing garage, in which case a 5-foot setback is required from the side and rear of the lot.

Design-wise, the ADU must match the primary unit in materials, trim, roof pitch and a number of other features. The front door of the unit cannot face the street.

Since the state voided the city’s prior ordinances in 2017, Dahl said, not many homeowners have requested permits for ADUs, in part because they are costly to build. He added that there are 10,000 single-family lots in Los Altos, and in the first year the city’s ordinances were voided, the city issued between 10 and 20 permits for ADUs.

Russell, however, is optimistic about the future impact of the amended ordinances.

“Maybe they want to rent it to a teacher, caretaker or family member,” Russell said of an ADU. “It’s a way of increasing our housing supply that would help our community.”

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