They are small, relatively affordable and can be built without zone changes or public hearings.
Now, Palo Alto officials are preparing to take a closer look at in-law apartments -- often known as "granny units," "secondary units" or "accessory-dwelling units" -- as a partial solution for the city's colossal housing shortage.
In a new memo, Vice Mayor Greg Schmid and City Councilmen Greg Scharff and Cory Wolbach are recommending that the city's planning staff and Planning and Transportation Commission launch a revision of the city's laws on granny units. The goal is to both encourage the addition of these units and ensure that these structures are sensitive to a neighborhood's character.
The idea of encouraging more granny units has become increasingly urgent as local rents have soared to new heights and the prospect of building large-scale affordable-housing developments looks shaky at best. In November 2013, voters overturned a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue that would have included 60 apartments for low-income seniors. And a tool that many affordable-housing developers have relied on in the past -- "planned community" zoning -- has been suspended by the council.
Earlier this month, the council heard testimony from nearly two dozen residents, most of whom lamented the sky-high cost of living in Palo Alto. The speakers included seniors, housing advocates, professionals and members of the millennial generation, many of whom grew up in Palo Alto and can no longer afford to live here despite college degrees and stable jobs.
Former councilwoman Gail Price, who was one of the speakers, said she was concerned that "construction costs and zoning constraints will continue to limit our ability to create more and greater housing options." Jeralyn Moran, a Gunn High School graduate who left Palo Alto and recently returned to take care of her 90-year-old mother, said the city is facing a "housing crisis."
"My mom is not in a position to find housing that's smaller from her original home here in Palo Alto," Moran said. "My children are millennials and they can't even consider living here now because of the expense."
In lieu of big affordable-housing projects, some residents urged the council to consider nimble, smaller-scale solutions like granny units. In the new memo, which the council is set to consider on Oct. 19, the three council members concur.
"We have high demand for housing at a variety of income-levels, with limited supply," the memo states. Accessory-dwelling units, the council members argue, would provide homeowners with supplemental income while also offering Stanford University students or Palo Alto employees with a local place to live.
The discussion about granny units comes exactly a decade after the city rejected a prior proposal to make these apartments easier to develop. In 2005, the council considered allowing single-family home owners with lots 7,000 square feet or larger to build 450-square-foot granny units on their properties, with a cap on 15 such units per year. That proposal fizzled on a 5-4 vote after council members bowed down to concerns from residents about the new units adding noise and traffic to their neighborhoods.
Under existing zoning rules, a property in a standard R-1 zoning district (single-family homes) has to have an area of at least 8,100 square feet for a secondary unit to be permitted (it's a 9,720 square feet requirement for properties that are flag lots). Local law also caps the floor area of a secondary unit at 450 feet, sets a 17-foot height limit for these structures and requires them to be "architecturally compatible with the main residence, with respect to style, roof pitch, color and materials."
As part of the new look at granny units, city staff would be directed to evaluate existing granny units and consider ways to bring non-compliant ones into compliance. Staff and planning commissioners would also offer recommendations to limit "impacts on community character and design standards."
The request is consistent with the city's recently adopted Housing Element, which plans out how the city can add housing between 2014 and 2023. The document states that the city approves an average of four such units per year. It therefore anticipates 32 such units to be created during the eight-year planning period. The document also includes as one of its programs a modification of the city's standards for secondary units, with particular focus on encouraging production of second units for very low-, low- or moderate-income individuals. It commits to the city studying the issue within three years of the document's November 2014 adoption to "assess the potential for additional secondary units with modifications to the development standards."