Palo Alto: City staff scrambling to comply with new granny flat laws

PALO ALTO — Aligning itself with a new law governing granny
flats across the state, Palo Alto is set to embark on a
wide-ranging conversation on how to encourage more accessory
dwelling units in the city to deal with an unrelenting affordable
housing crisis.

Now invalid after Governor Gavin Newsom signed a number of bills
related to ADUs, Palo Alto’s previous regulations on ADUs made it
difficult for homeowners to first get permission let alone build a
granny flat.

But in an effort to reach their goal of building 300 housing
units a year, Palo Alto council members have agreed to align its
ordinances to comply with state law and also have directed city
staff to streamline the permitting process and generally make it
easier to build ADUs.

The new changes in state law limit cities from prohibiting the
development of ADUs by lot size or because of standards like
building spacing within a lot, parking replacement minimums, height
requirements or other preemptions.

Palo Alto’s previous regulations included some conditional
standards that only apply to ADUs that met specific development
criteria, something the state law now prevents cities from doing.
And the state law also says that Palo Alto and other cities must
process an ADU application within 60 days.

Residents and housing advocates are reporting confusion and
longer-than-expected construction schedules as city planners work
through new regulations, and some argue Palo Alto’s process is
too long and expensive to be worthwhile.

City staff said about 112 permits have been issued out of 150
applications for building ADUs, though it’s unknown how many have
already been built or are under construction.

“It’s not something we’re particularly proud of,” said
Planning and Community Environment Department Director Johnathan
Lait. “We’ve gotten a lot of pushback on fees and some of these
things have taken longer to process.”

City staff also botched some parts of the ordinance presented to
the council Monday, with City Manager Ed Shikada admitting his
office was operating under the false assumption that council
members would have until the end of January to align city rules
with the new state law. He said staff started drafting the
ordinance in late December when it became clear they had to
“shift into high gear.”

Shikada made the comments after members of the public warned the
council about inaccuracies between the ordinance and the state law
it was trying to emulate, and urged members to postpone a decision
on the new rules until simpler language can be written.

“I’m all for it,” said Palo Alto architect Randy Popp.
“But I’m very concerned that you’ll enact this language that
is hugely inaccurate and end up in a place where we are only
following state regulations. With these rules, they can build 1,000
square-foot, two-story ADUs in the city.”

Jessica Resmini of ADU Collective — an organization aiming to
streamline the process of increasing housing in urban cores through
granny flats —  agreed that the language can get “really

“Just hearing the discussion, it’s clear the state law is
not quite clearly understood,” Resmini said. “We need to offer
flexibility in people’s lives and simplify the language. I think
all your constituents would really agree.”

Proposing an unfriendly amendment to make it mandatory for ADU
owners to participate in a city survey, council member Lydia Kou
said there had to be a way for the city to know whether ADUs were
effective at housing people. She said she was concerned about the
potential for these units to be used for AirBnB or other

That amendment failed in a 3-4 vote with council members Tom
DuBois, Eric Filseth and Kou dissenting.

Though he supported Kou in the vote, Filseth wondered what made
ADUs special that warranted mandatory reporting when such a program
does not exist for any other apartment or home.

Council member Alison Cormack opposed the amendment on similar
grounds, saying she couldn’t support asking staff to devote their
time to a survey they would have to start from scratch.

But Kou feared that the new rules would not have their intended
effect of building more housing to alleviate a shortage across the
Bay Area.

“The whole point of imposing these laws is for adequate
housing supply,” Kou said. “We need to have a level of
accountability to see if it’s effective or not.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Palo Alto: City staff scrambling to comply with new granny flat laws