In search of affordable housing, SLO County looks to homeowners to build in their backyards

San Luis Obispo County leaders are looking to homeowners to help increase the housing supply by building secondary units like backyard cottages, garage conversions and duplexes.

They’re called accessory dwelling units and they use underutilized space to create more housing opportunities for family members, as well as students and other renters.

These housing units are built on already developed lots. They typically cost less than other kinds of homes, increase rental housing options and can generate income for homeowners, through they also raise concerns about density and community character.

In a conversation about housing initiatives on Tuesday, county supervisors agreed with Planning and Building Department staff recommendations to loosen code restrictions on accessory dwelling units in unincorporated areas of the county, or those properties outside of city limits.

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No rule changes were made yet, but an ordinance is expected to be complete in summer 2019 after additional input from the public.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold said secondary units have “the potential to be the biggest influence on affordable housing.” One potential rule change could free up as many as 17,000 parcels to new secondary housing units.

Here are some of the proposed changes that could result in increased density:

  • Eliminate exclusion areas: About 34 areas of the county don’t currently allow secondary units, like south Atascadero and Los Ranchos/Edna Valley. Eliminating those excluded areas would free up about 17,000 parcels for new units. However, development in those areas could still be limited due to other constraints, like water.
  • Reduce minimum lot size: Currently, local rules only allow secondary units to be build on a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet with access to water and sewer, and 1-acre sites served by a septic system. Staff said reducing the minimum lot size would increase flexibility and could essentially double density in residential neighborhoods.
  • Allow larger secondary homes on parcels less than two acres: Currently, secondary units can be up to 800 square feet on properties up to two acres and 1,200 square feet on parcels greater than two acres. Allowing larger units on smaller lots would allow owners to charge higher rents and help offset the costs of building, staff said.
  • Prohibit using secondary units as short-term rentals: The county wants to encourage development of secondary units to create more affordable housing for the county’s workforce and aging family members, not vacation rentals and Airbnb properties.
  • Develop stock plans: The county will considering partnering with local architects to develop building plants would be available to county landowners.

The county is also looking to change rules to allow tiny homes on wheels.

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While seen as attractive low-investment homes for simple and environmentally-friendly living, they’re not currently allowed in the county because as recreational vehicles are not permitted for permanent occupancy. That could change in this upcoming round of ordinance re-writes.

Supervisors and builders generally support the changes.

Secondary housing units “could be low-hanging fruit for us. It could be one of the tools in the tool box and it could be an easy one to tackle if we do it right,” said Andrew Hacklemen with the Homebuilder’s Association.

While supervisors voted unanimously to direct staff to continue working toward this direction, a few cautions were raised.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson questioned the assumption that building accessory dwelling units or tiny homes will mean affordable housing, saying “I’m not completely convinced ADUS are our salvation.”

“As attractive and sensible in many ways as they are, in terms of increasing density and thus, in theory, providing affordable housing, I think we need to be sure that we get the results that we expect,” Gibson said.

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He wasn’t convinced that increasing the size limit of units would help meet the goal of affordable housing, particularly when homeowners’ incentive is income.

Gibson expressed strong support for prohibiting allowing short-term rentals for the same reason.

Supervisor Lynn Compton raised concerns about small prefabricated homes that “don’t always add to the character of the community.”

“You could have a Mediterranean home with tile roof and a gingerbread tiny home, which sort of destroys the character. It has to meet with community standards and look similar to the houses where you’re putting them,” Compton said, before joking that each tiny house should come with a tiny horse.

The effort to make the changes is in response to a state law that went into effect in 2017 to provide for the creation of accessory dwelling units.

The law says that a local agency’s ordinance “cannot be so arbitrary, excessive, or burdensome so as to unreasonably restrict the ability of homeowners to create ADUs.” Already, the county removed road surfacing and owner occupancy requirements.

Next steps include preparing a public review draft, community outreach, completing an environmental review and bringing the ordinance forward to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for adoption.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @MonicaLVaughan

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