Santa Cruz County is in the midst of a transition.
The term accessory dwelling unit (ADU) has made the leap from urban planning jargon to buzzword. Now, it could be joining the ranks of potential affordable housing solutions.
Known by many names, ADUs are granny flats, in-law units, and garage conversions that often end up in the backyards of single-family homes. These units, it turns out, are relatively affordable—compared to other options—because they have fewer parking requirements, they’re smaller, they have no elevators, and no one has to buy the land, just for starters. With a statewide housing shortage of at least 1.8 million homes, ADUs could represent a valuable addition to the future housing stock.
The state of California has passed a series of reforms in recent years to make ADUs both easier and cheaper to build. With the county of Santa Cruz preparing to implement those reforms, we often hear politicians speak favorably about these broad concepts.
“We’ve been trying for years to simplify and reduce costs for ADUs because it’s probably one of the easiest and most impactful housing solutions we have,” says Supervisor Ryan Coonerty.
But some worry the county isn’t going far enough.
In recent years, all of the local governments in Santa Cruz County have been approving permits for ADUs and getting them built—some faster than others.
It isn’t just a county issue. Although the city of Santa Cruz has taken some guff for not doing more to streamline these units, the city did lead all local governments in ADU permits issued both last year and over the past five years—per capita and in aggregate—according to numbers compiled by GT. (To a certain extent, we probably should expect Santa Cruz to lead these categories, as it’s a job center with decent public transit, beach access and incredibly high housing demand.) But even the city of Santa Cruz only averaged 51 yearly ADU permits over that span, with a high of 64 last year—not exactly soaring through the roof.
The city of Scotts Valley permitted the fewest ADUs over that span, and the county’s unincorporated area trailed all local cities on a per capita basis.
This summer, the county has begun looking at ways to streamline ADU production, in line with state requirements and recommendations from the county’s Planning Commission.
Although they supported the overall direction of the streamlining recommendations that came before them, most of the county’s supervisors say the proposed changes went too far—and were actually too permissive in allowing for new ADUs.
For instance, much of the chatter that’s swirled around these units over the past half-decade has focused on whether or not regulators should require the property owner to live on site—either in the ADU itself or in the property’s single-family home. With that in mind, Coonerty sought to preserve an old county rule requiring owner occupancy. He says having an owner on site prevents absentee landlords, and that owner-occupancy rules help prevent investors from scooping up all available properties and flipping them into multi-unit compounds and driving up prices—even if it means fewer ADUs getting built.
But the county already got rid of the ADU owner-occupancy rule, because a California directive states that cities and counties can’t require owner-occupancy on properties for ADUs if the permit is issued between the beginning of 2020 and Jan. 1, 2025. So it isn’t until 2025 at the earliest that the county will be able to reinstate the owner-occupancy rule. When I asked about this, Coonerty told me he hadn’t been aware of the state guideline.
Supervisor Zach Friend had questions in that same Aug. 10 meeting and wanted to know what design standards the county could create, so as to prevent planners from approving units too far out of whack with the character of a given neighborhood.
County staff is currently studying options, but all these design standards will have to be objective and specific. For instance, “nice-looking” would not be an objective standard. It would have to be an item that someone could mark off of a checklist.
And generally speaking, Rafa Sonnenfeld worries that, well-intentioned as they may be, all these rules will just result in fewer units getting built and, therefore, less relief from the housing crisis.
Sonnenfeld, a member of the Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness, was especially surprised to hear Coonerty wanting to be cautious about how the county allows for new ADUs. One year ago, the Santa Cruz Mountains lost 1,000 homes in a devastating wildfire, many of them in Coonerty’s district. Coonerty has acknowledged the problems created by a limited housing supply himself. “Before the fires, we were in a housing crisis,” Coonerty told me last year, “and we needed to build more housing to accommodate our existing community. Nothing about that has changed.”
And now, one year later, about 300 people have pulled permits, and some are in the various stages of rebuilding, Coonerty says. But on the subject of ADUs, he says it’s about finding balance—including between neighbor concerns and building homes.
Coonerty and Friend both tell me that, if the county isn’t careful, it could see a swift backlash to ADUs that could do serious harm to the movement.
But if a local anti-ADU backlash did materialize, it isn’t entirely clear to me how effective it could really be. After all, state law is now mandating a lot of ADU streamlining and taking away local control in general.
Coonerty and Friend are both certainly quick to point out that the county has made efforts to go above and beyond state guidelines. But two of the important ways the county was planning to do that are elements that the county is now walking back.
Friend—who has more than a decade’s experience in government, including eight years on the board—says I’m thinking too short-term in my analysis. Would-be housing opponents, he adds, may not start coming out of the woodwork until after a neighbor starts putting in a manufactured home four feet from their property line. The overall blowback could get pretty ugly—unless mitigated—and last a long time, he says. “Really, what we’re trying to do is change the structure of the game five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road,” he explains.
And so, instead of approving the county’s recommendations at the Aug. 10 meeting, supervisors voted 4-1—with Supervisor Manu Koenig dissenting—to have the ADU recommendations come back with the recommended changes.
County Planner Daisy Allen says she expects the changes to come back to the board for another vote in early October.
Other local players have a role in the ADU space right now, including the California Coastal Commission.
Commission staff worked with county planners to identify large swaths of the unincorporated area of Santa Cruz County’s Coastal Zone that—in their view—should have more stringent parking requirements on ADUs. Given that the commission’s goal is beach access, the idea here is to preserve as much street parking for visitors as possible.
However, these designated restricted areas actually extend far beyond the coast—about a mile from the beach in Aptos, and all the way to the inland side of Highway 1 farther north on Swanton Road.
Sonnenfeld is concerned that homeowners in these large areas wouldn’t want to pay tens of thousands of dollars to pave over a chunk of their yard, so he says it’ll be a significant barrier to building new housing units.
Commission District Director Dan Carl says the intention obviously isn’t about blocking housing at all. The commission supports ADU streamlining, he says, but he stresses that plenty of street parking is critical for visitor access to the beach, and he feels the potential for ADUs threatens that.
Sonnenfeld was holding out hope that the county would negotiate a special agreement, like one that the city of Santa Cruz just developed—to only create these off-street ADU parking requirements within 500 feet of the actual coast line, but it hasn’t panned out that way.
As it is, Sonnenfeld says the pro-parking framework created in the Coastal Commission’s designated areas “completely baffles” him.
“It’s favoring the potential for visitors to park for free, favoring auto-transport, favoring a policy that will worsen our greenhouse gas emissions, over the needs of working families,” he says. “These areas are nowhere near the beach. You don’t drive to Swanton Road to get to the beach. It’s on the wrong side of the highway. It doesn’t pass the smell test about beach access.”