California’s housing crisis has left more than 150,000 houseless, highlighting the dire need for more housing in the state. Instead of waiting for the private sector to solve this problem, one city has developed a unique approach to speeding new housing production that could be a model for other cities.
Clovis, a small Central Valley city, bundled several innovations together to create an express lane for new housing creation. At the center are accessory dwelling units (ADUs), or secondary dwellings on the same lot as an existing home. To promote them, Clovis leaders drew up pre-approved ADU plans, gave them away for free, connected homeowners for peer support, and guided applicants through the construction process.
Sometimes called in-law suites, granny units, or tiny houses, ADUs are viewed by housing experts as one part of a multifaceted solution to the housing crisis. However, getting them permitted and built is not always fast or easy. Some cities have zoned against ADUs – but in many places those roadblocks are coming down.
After a state law loosened restrictions on ADUs in 2017, Los Angeles issued 35 times the number of ADU permits it had approved two years earlier. Adding ADUs got easier in November 2019 when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that allowed every single family homeowner to add up to two additional units.
“The update to state law that made it easier to bring ADUs onto private properties really made things fall into place for us, and we are so grateful that happened,” said Maria Spera, a planning technician with the city of Clovis.
The Cottage Home Program, as the ADU initiative in Clovis was known, was envisioned as a way to make Clovis’s alleys hospitable and friendly places rather than unused space, but it quickly grew bigger. Originally, the free plans were provided to any property owner with alley-facing property, but those restrictions were lifted and the plans are now available city-wide. Clovis has gone so far as to provide three complete, pre-approved plans for ADUs, free of charge, to its residents through the program.
Interest in the program has been so widespread the city hasn’t had to do much outreach. “It sort of does its own legwork,” Spera said. “We have seen a lot of them interested in putting elderly parents in them, even children attending school. Some rent the units or use them as short-term rentals.”
So far the program has yielded 11 ADUs – and permits are in place for six more. Nine of the new units have already been rented out.
Once owners look over the plans and apply, the city provides them with permits and helps walk them through the process to build their ADU.
“Within 10 to 15 days, we give them a call and let them know they can come pick up the plans and their permits and start building,” said Spera. The plans have been standardized to meet city and state building codes, and include options for homes of three different heights, each measuring 500 square feet or less.
State support for ADUs
The Cottage Home Program has helped to bring new life to Clovis while providing more housing options for residents and new income streams for property owners. “The vision was revitalization of the old town area, and the ability to have more housing in that area,” Spera said. “We see ADUs as a plus, for the property owner and the community. It helps the owners and it helps people looking for housing.”
If property owners want to learn about building and renting an ADU, she puts them in touch with those that have been through the process before, and they share information about where to purchase materials, contractors, and other logistics. Spera also regularly visits homes of interested property owners and helps them with measuring out space to determine if an ADU would fit.
The Cottage Home program has drawn much interest. “I get a lot of inquiries from other cities, either because they are developing similar programs and would like more information, or they would like to start one,” said Spera. “We are more than happy to give them as much information as possible, because we want to see this happening everywhere.”
Advocates point to a number of advantages ADUs bring. Among them:
- Allowing communities like Clovis to bring in revenue for existing residents and welcome new ones,
- Giving cities the ability to create new housing without pushing anyone out through major development or gentrification,
- Opening the door for people to afford areas that might otherwise be inaccessible to them,
- Offering residents an opportunity to keep elderly parents or young adults in the community.
The Cottage Home Program makes building an backyard tiny home as simple and painless as possible, and homeowners have been enthusiastic about being a part of it. As California navigates its housing crisis and the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, creative solutions are more important than ever.
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