ADU reform: what good is a law if it’s not enforced?

September 14, 2021 | By DANIEL WOISLAW
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The California legislature has passed revolutionary legislation in the past few years that makes it easier for residents to build additional housing in the form of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), more recognizable to some as granny flats, basement apartments, or small backyard cottages.

These new reforms, which remove costly and complicated barriers to the permit approval process, could provide a much-needed boost to the housing supply in California.

State law in California has stripped bureaucrats of their unbridled discretion to deny permits for ADUs and now requires permits to be issued within 60 days if the application is otherwise in compliance with a set of reasonable and knowable standards. But despite these recent reforms, many cities and counties are dragging their feet on issuing building permits for ADUs in blatant defiance of law.

Understanding all too well that the state is facing a housing shortage of unprecedented proportions, the state legislature passed these new laws making it easier to create new ADUs, thereby adding new housing options to residents across the state.

But instead of embracing these ideas, local governments are fighting them. San Diego County is among the worst offenders, taking a median period of 187 days to issue permits for ADUs. Obstacles placed in the way of building on private residential property in this manner suppress the housing supply, driving up rents and creating hardship for average Americans.

In Malibu, for example, Elizabeth Riddick and her husband Jason wanted to build a small attached ADU on their home for her immunocompromised 82-year-old mother to be close to family, but not in direct proximity, while receiving medical care. But Malibu city officials have rejected the proposal for failure to comply with a local plan, one that is superseded by the state laws requiring issuance of building permits for ADUs.

Many cities have minimum lot size requirements, spacing restrictions, and discretionary approval processes. California’s ADU reform laws remove many of these barriers to the construction of accessory dwelling structures. But cities like Malibu are continuing to defy this state law, making the construction of ADUs by people like the Riddicks unduly difficult and costly.

Unfortunately, Malibu and San Diego are not the only offenders making it onerous for Californians to use their own residential property in a way that increases the supply of affordable housing. San Marino, Coronado, and Oakland are all refusing to comply with California’s shall-issue process for ADU permits in various ways.

Pacific Legal Foundation’s client, Cordelia Donnelly, was denied an ADU building permit by the City of San Marino because, in the estimation of the city, her lot was too small, the ADU proposed was too big, and the garage was too close to the house—even though the ADU complied with California state law, which prohibits cities like San Marino from enforcing exclusionary policies such as this against applicants for ADU permits.

The proliferation of discretionary zoning policies over the years has contributed to a depressed supply of housing, high rents, and expensive and time-consuming obstacles to developing one’s own private residential property for use.

Construction of ADUs a key tool for increasing the supply of affordable housing in residential areas that are already built out, which is typically the location where it is needed the most.

ADUs can provide an additional source of income, allowing some Californians to continue affording to live in their own home while property values—and the ensuing taxes therefore—continue to rise. They provide an opportunity for the elderly to retain their independence as they age, with family close by. And of course, they provide an affordable option for those who wish to live and work in a densely developed area but can’t afford a house or apartment.

But what good is a law that makes it easier for Californians to build on their own residential property if it is not followed?

Cities, towns, and counties across California must cease placing illegal obstacles into the paths of their residents trying to obtain permits to build ADUs. Not only is their conduct unlawful and in direct defiance of California Code, but it is likely to result in costly litigation down the road when property owners like the Riddicks and Cordelia Donnelly decide to stand up for themselves and their property rights.