A careful observer of Palo Alto city politics, and this election season for that matter, might have noticed that the term "granny units," or "second dwelling units," has been dropped a few times of late.
The latest Housing Element making its way towards the City Council counts expected second dwelling units for the first time towards the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) -- through which the city must prove it has sufficient zoning to accommodate future housing growth. This inclusion was suggested by a community panel of local housing stakeholders, convened in March, to discuss the document.
In addition, the Housing Element Community Panel has proposed that the city examine its current planning requirements for second dwelling units and consider whether they should be amended to encourage the construction of more such units. The latest draft of the Housing Element for 2015-23 includes a program (H3.3.5) that asks for the city to do just that.
"Whether we implement some of that, we shall see," said Tim Wong, interim advance planning manager for the City of Palo Alto. "But the first step is to review what those requirements are and what the public would think about relaxing some of (them)."
At the moment, the city only approves about four second dwelling units each year, with a slight uptick to six this past year, according to Wong. Thus, the proposed Housing Element anticipates 32 new second dwelling units in the next eight years, a small contribution to the 1,988 units the RHNA calls for in Palo Alto.
Wong explained that state law allows Palo Alto property owners to build second dwelling units "by right," meaning that it requires no "discretionary review" from a city commission or the council. However, for the Planning Department to sign off on a project, the property must meet a laundry list of conditions, some of which might rule out projects on smaller lots.
For instance, the property must exceed a certain minimum lot size, which varies depending on the zoning. Also, square footage added by the unit (which maxes out at 900 square feet) counts towards the total Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which limits the total square footage taken up by buildings on the property.
Other stipulations include that the property have additional parking spaces (two uncovered, two covered in total one of each for each unit), that the units be separated by at least 12 feet, that the second unit be "architecturally compatible" with the main home, and that it should be only one story tall, with a maximum height of 17 feet.
Just a few weeks ago, David and Edda Whitton completed a second dwelling unit just under 800 square feet on their Ross Road property, a process that took them about two years.
The couple got the idea from a neighbor down the street who had built a second dwelling unit. The pool the Whittons previously had in their backyard was not easy or cheap to maintain, and they decided to fill it in and build an "in-law cottage." From the beginning, they envisioned the new unit as a rental that could produce some extra cash flow, which they could use to finance vacations, for example.
"We are both retired; it would be nice to have a little additional income," Whitton said.
Quiet and well-appointed, the unit would be ideal for a student or staff member from Stanford University, they thought. They spoke with a friend who is a real-estate agent, and after making a few changes, set the rental rate for the unit at $3,850 per month, with utilities paid separately. They have had listings up on Craiglist for a few months and have talked with some interested people, though they have not yet found a permanent tenant.
A few years down the road, Whitton said that they may move into the second dwelling unit themselves while they update their main home, originally built in 1959.
Though they are happy with the results, the project did not come without its headaches, among them difficulties with a manager they hired, unforeseen utilities costs and a number of approvals. In addition to the above planning requirements, the project had to be in compliance with the city's building codes.
"We're in that sort of buyer's remorse thing now," Whitton said. "These things are a major, major event."
During the process, the Whittons discovered that the fire department requires the installation of fire sprinklers in all new units, which necessitated the placement of some "ugly back-flow prevention devices" in their front yard. Whitton also explained that, if they could do it over, they would make the unit an all-electric dwelling; it was a struggle setting up a new gas line and meter, he said.
Though he described the process as "a lot of work, a lot of detail, a lot of bureaucracy," Whitton was happy with the assistance he had received from the city in jumping through all the various hoops.
"The folks in Palo Alto Utilities and Palo Alto building office have been very helpful and kind to us," he said.