[Santa Clara County] LAH eyes 'granny units' as housing crisis solution

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.

Los Altos Hills residents considering the addition of in-law quarters, converted pool houses or granny units to their properties could eventually see the prospect sweetened as officials begin mulling incentives promoting such construction.

“What I really hope is to find residents who are eager to build these projects,” said Courtenay C. Corrigan, the Hills council member working with town staff to investigate the possibility of relaxing restrictions or fees associated with accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. “I’m eager to help smooth the path for them, and in doing so, help our town meet its numbers.”

Corrigan is referring to Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) numbers, figures calculated for the town by the Association of Bay Area Governments as part of state-mandated efforts for addressing the housing crisis. Like other California cities, Los Altos Hills is required to facilitate the construction of so many new housing units categorized by four income levels: “very low,” “low,” “moderate” and “above moderate.”

Issuing enough “above moderate” housing permits is no problem in this tony town of mansions and mega mansions, but it lags within the other three categories. If existing RHNA figures are extrapolated through 2022, the end of a nine-year cycle, for example, Los Altos Hills will fall short of its very-low-income housing goal by eight units (38 built versus 46 required), of its low-income housing goal by 10 units (18 built versus 28 required) and of its moderate-income housing goal by 16 units (16 built versus 32 required), according to the 2017 annual progress report of the town’s Housing Element.

But Los Altos Hills isn’t alone. “Density Is Our Destiny,” a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report published in June, revealed none of the county’s 15 cities met its below-market-rate housing goals during the previous RHNA cycle, between 2007 and 2014.

“The RHNA process does little to ensure that housing needs are met,” according to the report. “Cities and counties face no consequences other than bad press for failing to meet their RHNA objectives.”

So consequences could be forthcoming. Among the grand jury’s suggested solutions are creating RHNA sub-regions consisting of a mix of high-cost and low-cost cities. High-cost cities such as Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Los Gatos, where developers are less willing to undertake below-market-rate projects due to concern about return on investment, would compensate low-cost cities such as San Jose, Gilroy and Milpitas for affordable housing constructed in low-cost cities.

In addition, cities with limited developable land or commercial development capable of generating funds for affordable housing, including Los Altos Hills, could be subject to residential development impact fees and parcel taxes to pay for it.

AUXILIARY SOLUTION

The grand jury’s recommendations proved divisive at the Oct. 18 Los Altos Hills City Council meeting, with council members Gary Waldeck and Michelle Wu expressing interest in the idea of forming a sub-region and Corrigan and Councilman Roger Spreen arguing the town shouldn’t trade money for a hall pass around reaching its affordable housing quota.

“That becomes basically a tax on us for not having done our job to start with,” Spreen said.

All, however, seemed receptive to another grand jury suggestion: incentivizing ADU creation. Possible perks for homeowners include cities decreasing minimum lot size requirements and increasing the allowable maximum square footage of ADUs, according to the grand jury report.

Other options Corrigan said she might explore with town staff members include relaxing parking restrictions and property setback rules and reducing sewer hook-up fees as they pertain to ADUs.

Through conversations with Los Altos Hills residents expressing interest in ADU construction, Corrigan has learned their overwhelming motivation is housing family members of all life stages, including elderly parents and adult children who may have jobs but not enough income to live elsewhere in the Bay Area.

Although their familial landlords may intend to charge little if any rent, the addition of a new in-law quarters, converted pool house or granny unit still has an impact on the housing crisis as a whole, she said.

“It’s my belief that taking that family member out of the competitive rental pool is helping our region,” she said.

The ADU subcommittee expects to present recommendations to the Planning Commission within the next six months.

October 31, 2018

Los Altos Town Crier

By Megan V. Winslow

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