The Coast News Group
The California State Capitol building in Sacramento. Courtesy photo

Encinitas ‘granny flats’ bill advances in state legislature

ENCINITAS — A new bill is moving through the California Legislature, which will make construction of  “granny flats” easier in Encinitas.

Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Nigel), who represents the 36th District covering Encinitas, Carlsbad, Vista, Oceanside and parts of Orange County, introduced Senate Bill 1226 earlier this year with the city of Encinitas as a sponsor.

As Encinitas struggles to comply with state housing laws, one partial solution stands before the city that won’t require new development: permitting additional dwelling units that already exist.

Called granny flats, in-law units, above-garage studios or backyard cottages, these accessory units face permitting hurdles that often result in illegal rentals.

Sen. Pat Bates
Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear

Mayor Catherine Blakespear advocated for the bill (the first one Encinitas has sponsored in 20 years) in an effort to streamline the permitting process and get more of these living spaces officially counted by California’s housing agency. After speaking before lawmakers in Sacramento on June 20, Blakespear told The Coast News, “If we’re serious about moving the needle on these longstanding housing problems, we need to approach it from all angles. These shadow, uncounted granny flats are real housing in our city.”

The bill, which has passed through five committee hearings unanimously, including a 7-0 vote by the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee whom Blakespear addressed on June 20, would allow accessory dwellings to be permitted based on the code in effect at the time the units were built. In other words, a housing inspector could evaluate a granny flat constructed in 1960 based on the housing code that existed then — rather than requiring an owner to bring it up to current code, which is often infeasible and prohibitively expensive.

“While the Legislature is working on policies to encourage new building, SB 1226 gets back to basics,” Bates said in a statement. “If you did everything right and built your house to the codes at the time it was constructed, then let’s give you a permit. SB 1226 will encourage all units in hiding to come out of the shadows and help ensure that they are safe and up to code.”

Encinitas’ hope is that this bill will indeed incentivize homeowners with accessory dwelling units to make those living spaces legal and register them. The city has already taken steps to promote their permitting, including waiving fees and loosening size and setback requirements.

SB 1226 could provide added momentum in increasing the number of registered accessory units counted in Encinitas’ housing stock, whether affordable, moderate or above moderate. State housing laws require cities to address growth and provide housing for all income levels.

According to a city-issued press release, it’s estimated that there are more than 1,000 unpermitted accessory dwelling units in Encinitas.

Recent survey efforts by the city revealed that about 25 percent of accessory units granted permits in Encinitas since the start of 2010 had been rented at rates classified as affordable to low- or very low-income households. Those lower-income thresholds pose the hardest challenge when it comes to providing housing, which is why any solution that partially addresses the shortage has been sought.

Blakespear said, “The bottom line is that this is one more tool for homeowners to permit their units. In a state housing crisis, we don’t want housing removed from the city’s housing stock, especially housing that is naturally more affordable like an older granny flat.” 

Encinitas is not the only city that’s trying to work with what it already has. A recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “Affordable Housing Is Your Spare Bedroom,” takes a similar tack, noting, “Luckily for cities, a font of affordable housing already exists. It’s in the wasted spaces of single-family homes — spare bedrooms, backyards and the millions of square feet occupied by redundant bathrooms and kitchens that could instead be zoned as shared space.”

Cities such as San Francisco, where up to 8 percent of granny flats are illegal, will also be affected by the new legislation, according to Bates’ staff. The legislation is expected to boost overall compliance and raise property tax revenue.

“Some of our residents have granny flats predating 1986 before we were incorporated as a city, which are nearly impossible to permit under current codes,” Blakespear said. “We are grateful that Sen. Bates authored this legislation that would lead to more permitted homes which means safe dwellings for our residents.”

The bill will go before the Assembly Appropriations Committee in early August and then to the Assembly floor for a vote in late August. The final step to becoming law would be Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature in September.

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