Density and Affordable Housing

Density and Affordable Housing

Housing costs can be directly related to the very basic economic theory of supply and demand. As demand increases and supply remains the same, the costs necessarily go up. This is very much evident in Sebastopol today. Sebastopol is seen as a desirable community to live in. It’s small, has good schools, low crime and is located in a beautiful environment with close access to nature. The median home price in Sebastopol is $675,000. A household needs to make well over $100,000 to afford the median priced house in Sebastopol. The median family income in Sebastopol is $50,900. There is a disconnect.

The number of housing units built in Sebastopol in recent years has been quite small. From 2010 to 2013 there have been 55 residential units constructed.  Thirty-four of those units were part of a single-family self-help affordable housing development. These numbers have done little to make housing more affordable in Sebastopol. While I’m all for advocating more multi-family housing near downtown I believe there is another option for improving housing affordability.

Secondary dwelling units (also known as Accessory Dwelling Units, granny units, as well as numerous other names) are allowed in Sebastopol. These have the ability to create much needed affordable housing. Currently, second dwelling units are allowed on all parcels zoned for single-family, duplex or multi-family uses. The city has reasonable development standards when it comes to second units. Single-story detached units may reduce rear and sideyard setback requirements by half (2-story or attached must comply with the setbacks established for the district they are located in). The height for a single-story unit can be up to 17′ and a two-story unit up to 25′. Second dwelling units do not need to be considered part of the maximum lot coverage allowed. Secondary dwelling units of 2 bedrooms or less only require 1 off-street parking space which may be parked in tandem with other off-street parking required for the property. Secondary dwelling units are allowed by right, except that 2-story units must be reviewed by the Design Review Board. For those of you not familiar with secondary dwelling units, this website has a lot of information and examples.

This house has a second unit on the lower level.

This house has a second unit on the lower level.

In Sebastopol, the maximum allowable size for a second unit is limited to 840 sf. While it may be possible to get a 2-bedroom unit in 840 sf, it would be rather tight. I imagine most secondary dwelling units that are built to 840 sf are probably 1 bedroom units. The property next door to mine added a second unit about 10 years ago. It is close to 840 sf and 2 stories tall. It has 1 bedroom, and a loft area that functions as a second bedroom, but does not have a separate door, or closet for that matter. The home is nicely designed and fits well in the neighborhood and it’s property. The owner actually had to get a variance for a reduced backyard setback (which abuts my sideyard), to make it work. The woman who built the home had raised her family in the house, but she was now living in her home alone. Her original plan was to move into the second unit and rent the main house. But in the end she decided to stay in the large house so there would be room for her children and grandchildren when they visited and she rented the second unit.

Secondary Dwelling Unit

Secondary Dwelling Unit

The house is on it’s third set of renters. The first 2 families were each a single-mom with 1 daughter. A married couple recently moved into the house part-time. The unit worked well for the single-parent with 1 child, and was probably more affordable than renting a house on it’s own parcel. There are a significant number of single-parent households today and they often do not have the same financial capacity as two-parent households which makes it difficult for them to find housing in Sebastopol.IMG_20150327_155941151

The previous renters in the house next door had to move out as the new property owners needed to move in while they renovated the main house on the property. It took the woman several months to find replacement housing during which time she spent house-sitting or living with friends. I know it was a stressful and challenging time for the woman and her daughter, but in the end they did find something that suits them. Another recently divorced friend with 2 children also had to find new housing and spent months looking for something in town. She was finally able to find a small home for rent, but again after several very stressful months, and in the end the home she ended up with was less than ideal, but all she could afford and find at the time.

I think we need to take a look at our secondary dwelling unit ordinance, and allow for larger second units. These could serve to house underserved population in our community all without needing to expand our infrastructure and without significant impact on our existing community. I think we should allow second units up to 1,000 sf which would allow for 2 decent-sized bedrooms. In order to allow for the larger units, I think a parcel should have a minimum size, and maybe include the second unit in a maximum lot coverage. it certainly wouldn’t work well on my 3,750 sf lot, but there are certainly some larger lots in town that could easily accommodate a 1,000 sf second unit. The nearby city of Novato allows second dwelling units up to 1,000 sf on lots over 10,000 sf. There is another property in my neighborhood that has a second building on the property that actually contains 2 additional units. As far as I can tell, it provides affordable housing, at no detriment to the rest of the neighborhood.

Single parents, young families, young adults living in shared housing, the elderly, families working in the lower wage service or agricultural industries, all could benefit from having more, and larger, second dwelling units in Sebastopol. Housing for these populations will keep a strong mix of people and incomes in our town which is important for a vibrant community. It enriches our lives to mix with people who might be from different income levels or age brackets, or ethnic backgrounds. And these units also make housing more affordable for the property owners by providing an additional source of income. My new neighbors have told me that one of the reasons they purchased the property was because it had an income-generating unit.

This home has a studio unit on the lower floor. Great for a young single person.

This home has a studio unit on the lower floor. Great for a young single person.

Not only will these larger second units provide affordable housing for a segment of the population that has a difficult time finding it, but when built in town they allow for the residents of the second dwelling units opportunity to walk and bike more than getting in their cars. We do not need to build more infrastructure (streets, water, sewer, gas etc.) to accommodate these additional families, but rather use existing infrastructure. It increases the density without impacting the overall character of our neighborhoods. Secondary dwelling units create additional housing in our already built-up environment and take pressure off adding new housing outside of town, which will only adds to more traffic congestion.

The Sebastopol City Council will be reviewing the draft Housing Element of the General Plan on March 31st, 2015. They should approve strong language in support of secondary dwelling units and allow for larger units to provide housing for a wider variety of incomes and family types.

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