Redwood City explores revisions to law on accessory housing units

Redwood City is considering modifying its building code to encourage the construction of accessory dwelling units on lots with single-family homes.

The city's ordinance regulating accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which include in-law studios and backyard cottages, was enacted in 1982. In light of the booming Silicon Valley job market and rising demand for living spaces, however, Redwood City officials are hoping to increase the size of the city's housing stock by making it easier for homeowners to create secondary structures for renters or relatives on their properties.

“We're on a fact-finding mission,” said Michelle Littlefield, an associate planner with the city. “We want to learn more about what's going on in our communities. Are people able to build or are they not able to build and why?”

State law mandates that municipal regulations regarding accessory units not be too restrictive or overly burdensome. Preliminary evaluations of how the current code is being implemented have indicated that it may not meet that requirement, according to city officials.

“Is it producing the number of units that we expect it to? It is not, but we don't know the reason why,” Littlefield said of the existing law on secondary units.

Accessory housing spaces are defined as attached or detached residential units, complete with a kitchen and bathroom, and on the same lot as a main house. According to Littlefield, they provide a valuable opportunity for intergenerational living, supplemental income for owners and affordable housing for renters.

Since January 2000, only 62 ADUs have been permitted in Redwood City. But in the last 18 months alone, 104 reports have been filed on illegal units, ones that are not properly permitted and noncompliant.

The current ordinance limits ADUs to 640 square feet, a single bedroom and a one-story maximum height if detached, or two stories for attached extensions. It also requires a 20-foot setback from the backyard property boundary, a third on-site parking space, and that the owner occupies the principal house on the lot.

Preliminary suggestions by the city's planning staff on an amended code include increasing the allowable size to 800 square feet in some cases, reducing rear setback limits to as little as 6 feet depending on the structure's height, and allowing driveways to count as a parking space. Other ideas include the potential creation of an amnesty program to help illegal units get permitted, and letting homeowners live in either unit.

Public comments at a recent Planning Commission study session were mostly supportive of the changes proposed, though some residents expressed concerns about traffic impacts and congested street parking that can result from higher density living.

“We have established neighborhoods in Redwood City and one of the other major considerations is neighborhood character,” Littlefield added. “Should the city create more design flexibility and what would that do to neighborhood character?”

This type of code reform is not new to the area. Earlier this year, San Francisco supervisors passed laws that create a pathway for building owners to legalize the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 existing secondary housing spaces, as well as allow the construction of new in-law units in the Castro. Other municipalities across the Bay Area have tried to lower barriers to ADU construction, and Redwood City has looked to Menlo Park, Berkeley, Seattle and Portland, Ore., as models.

According to Littlefield, a draft ordinance is slated to come before the Planning Commission and public this summer and be sent to the City Council around the end of the year.

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