Real Estate

Living small

Residents of in-law cottages in Palo Alto talk about the upsides of less space

The average size of a Palo Alto home has gotten bigger over the years, with large new houses replacing modest old ones and taking up greater portions of residential lots.

But another movement -- in the form of cottages, converted garages and in-law units -- could be waiting in the wings, some residents say.

The need for these diminutive living spaces, from 450 to 900 square feet, is great, according to proponents who recently have been attending City Council meetings to lobby for action on the matter. Teachers, librarians, students, emergency personnel, empty nesters and the shrinking middle class all need affordable housing close to where they work or have families, they said. And the demand will only become even more acute in the next decade.

For Palo Alto's longtime small-space dwellers, the sacrifice of square feet in exchange for reasonable rent and close proximity to amenities has been a godsend. And for their landlords, who have these so-called "secondary dwelling" or "granny" units in their yards, the added residences have brought with them greater safety, financial security and a sense of community, they said.

Old Palo Alto resident Bonnie Berg has lived in a 700-square-foot cottage for 30 years.

"When I think about our house, it's a cozy nest," she said, sitting amid her neat gardens of drought-resistant succulents accented by colorful flowers. "I like a really simple life. My needs are simple. I don't like a lot of stuff."

Living in a small home provides an improved quality of life, according to Berg.

"It feels so good to be in a house and not an apartment, and to have windows all around," she said.

Berg's home is immaculate and well-appointed. Each piece of furniture and each decoration and photograph has been carefully selected.

"I have beautiful things that mean something to me. I don't go to a decorator store and just get things to fill a space. Everywhere I look feeds me and nourishes me," she said.

One of the best parts of small-residence living is that it is low maintenance, Berg said. Clutter is kept to a minimum. There is just enough space for a combination bookcase and pantry in the kitchen, a small living room, a home office and a guest bedroom. Berg's husband, David Foster, maintains a personal space -- his man cave -- in a shed at the rear of the house.

Two years ago, they moved their bedroom onto the screened porch so they could accommodate the occasional guest. They liked the arrangement so much that they have continued to sleep there, she said.

"It's so awesome. In the summer the crickets sing us to sleep at night, and the birds wake us up in the morning. It's so nice to wake up and see what's going on outside," she said.

Though a study of Palo Alto's diminutive-house denizens hasn't been conducted, Berg and Foster believe they are typical of the kinds of people who seek out secondary dwelling units. Both are working professionals. She is a registered nurse who co-started the city's volunteer emergency Medical Reserve Corps.

The landlord of one Crescent Park secondary dwelling unit began renting out her backyard cottage when she and her husband purchased the property and set about remodeling the main house. They were living elsewhere during the renovation, so having someone on the site in the cottage offered security, she said.

Unexpectedly, that 800-or-so-foot cottage also created a greater sense of community and safety. When her daughter had leukemia, having someone living so close by became a blessing, especially when someone needed to call the hospital, she said.

Her cottage renters, who have ranged from a head librarian of the Palo Alto Children's Library to teachers and Stanford University researchers, have become extended family.

The homeowner said she sees a great need for affordable housing in Palo Alto.

"People from the cancer department at Stanford; teachers and nurses -- all of these people need affordable housing. My daughter had leukemia, and these are the people who saved her life. There are real reasons why we need these resources," she said.

Rachel Ginis, an anthropologist who studies housing patterns and operates the Marin-based nonprofit Lilypad Homes, which advocates for secondary-dwelling solutions, said that affordable housing can be created within existing homes as well as in backyards.

Garages and attics have been converted to include living, sleeping, bath and kitchen areas completely separate from those of the main residence. So-called junior second units can be created out of a spare bedroom, with the bathroom either private or shared.

But Palo Alto's ordinances will have to change to make building these kinds of units easier, she said. For example, currently in Palo Alto every home in an R-1 zone with a secondary unit must include two parking spaces -- one covered and one uncovered.

Ginis said she has been working toward passage of state Assembly Bill 2406, which was introduced on Feb. 19 by East Bay Assembly Member Tony Thurmond. The bill would allow a local agency to create ordinances for junior accessory dwelling units in single-family residential zones, including building standards, deed restrictions and occupancy requirements. The bill would prohibit an ordinance from requiring -- as a condition of granting a permit -- water and sewer-connection fees, additional parking, or fire sprinklers or fire attenuation requirements.

Ginis was scheduled to speak before the grassroots advocacy group Palo Alto Forward about secondary dwelling options on March 3.

Elaine Uang, a founding member of Palo Alto Forward, said this type of housing will continue to support a trend happening across the country: multigenerational living. In her Downtown North neighborhood, there are people who have disabled adult children for whom a separate residence on the property would mean a measure of independence. Second units also allow older, ailing parents to age in place.

Many such units already exist in Palo Alto, illegally, she added.

Individual units are not just for singles and couples, either. In a hidden enclave of 12 cottages in Crescent Park, Yoanna Gerwel Federici, her husband and two sons, ages 9 and 11, share their recently purchased home with two guinea pigs. The home, at about 950 square feet, is technically larger than the 900 square foot limit of Palo Alto's secondary dwelling unit, but not by much.

At first, trying to move from a larger dwelling onto a smaller one was daunting, Gerwel Federici said, but they pared down and haven't missed things.

Gerwel Federici, who was raised in Europe, said living in tiny areas is normal there. Used wisely, a small space comes with many intrinsic bonuses.

"I like feeling close to family. It's much easier to keep track of the boys without being intrusive," she said.

Living near downtown, her children bike or walk to school, and she bikes to her job at Stanford University. She estimated that they use their car perhaps once a week, thus the family also has a lesser carbon footprint.

Gerwel Federici believes people who live in cottages also tend to be interesting.

"There are a lot of intellectuals," she said. "It's not about the space; it's about the soul."

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10 people like this
Posted by Anneke
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 4, 2016 at 9:16 am

I read once the following: Happiness is living in a home small enough, so you live in each area.

We (my husband, our Katie Woof, and I) live in a little hobbit house of 1325 square feet, and we love living in each space.

4 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2016 at 1:28 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Is someone actually proposing legal second units without water or sewer connections? What next- legalize providing electricity with an extension cord? They aren't required to have wired smoke detectors (now required of all new construction and major remodeling)? This is legalizing living in a shed.

I am all for loosening some of the requirements for accessory dwellings - but let sanity prevail. We should not enable people to provide substandard dwellings at premium prices. That is what we all condemned farmers for doing with migrant labor. Small is one thing. I live in a house that is only 885 sq. ft. No problem. I have water sewer electrical and gas, not to mention two parking places.

AD's should meet minimum building standards and setbacks with access to a driveway and at least two parking places. If you don't require parking, then there must be a law forbidding the residents from having a car - and what is the possibility of that? The AD ordinance should not worsen Palo Alto's parking deficit.

This ordinance is beginning to look like an underhanded attempt to turn all of Palo Alto's R1 zoning to R2.

3 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Oops - I misread the article. They aren't proposing eliminating water and sewer connections - just eliminating the fees,

Let's be real. Many homeowners will be building these AD's to take advantage of the rental market and make money. I support this. However, there is no reason to subsidize income-generating additions by eliminating connection or permit fees, which are minor compared to the cost of construction. One could indeed argue that they should have to pay school impact fees.

Even small houses attract single parents with children who prioritize good schools. I first moved to Palo Alto with my two children. I lived my first four years in a tiny 800 sq. ft. house behind a house so they could attend Paly. I am surely not the only person who will make that decision.

1 person likes this
Posted by junior suites
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 4, 2016 at 4:30 pm

Ginnis is specifically talking about someone taking an existing bedroom in a home, and simply allowing people to secure it from entry from the rest of the house, putting in a wet bar, and then creating an external entrance.

So you're using a space that has already been permitted for water and sewage, etc. It already has all the connections it needs. Schools have already been accounted for. If a house has 4 bedrooms, the city has already taken all the fees necessary to cover use of all 4 bedrooms - they've already assumed at least 3 kids. Your parking requirements shouldn't change as the number of people who can live there hasn't changed. So walling off a bedroom and creating more privacy shouldn't trigger more fees. You can already have anyone you want live there - either for free, or getting roommates. So why are we making it so hard and so expensive just to give people some extra privacy?

And by the way, the fees aren't cheap. Ginnis said it would cost you make 10-25k to convert an existing bedroom into a junior accessory dwelling unit, but that in many places paying connection fees (for services you already have!) and permitting fees can cost nearly 35k.

5 people like this
Posted by Junior Units/Landowner and long time resident of Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 5, 2016 at 11:03 am

Respectfully "Let's be real":. Changing a unit from a spot that one family member uses (the remaining resident after other members of the family have left the house, say, either due to divorce, or death or going to college, or... the list goes on) to a unit for a vetted renter or the homeowner, changes little or nothing. Why all the angst over this small request for a change? This is an easy way to say "yes" as opposed to "no" for those of us homeowners who simply want to change the configuration of our houses in a legal, pleasing way. Just say yes and let's move on to more pressing issues--that's the "real" I see.

As for the person who posted about moving into an 800 sq. foot house many years ago: for women with children this has become impossible in this city. That was something families could do 20 years ago. Let's be real. We are looking for housing solutions that address the market today that are realistic and not too much of a burden on the city, i.e. that don't require more construction of new housing. More housing, thoughtfully built. should also be considered eventually but allowing the legal construction of JDU's is an immediate solution that should be supported NOW. JDU's: Reconfiguring space in houses (now increasingly empty due to residents (college kids, spouses, aged folks moving out of Palo Alto homes) to allow for a rental unit to a friendly renter whom the owner chooses. No big change. Legal support to assist residents. What's unreal about that?

6 people like this
Posted by Airbnb
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 5, 2016 at 11:35 am

I think that CC should pair approval of ADUs with legislation limiting short-term rentals (i.e. Airbnb)to have a real impact on rental housing stock in Palo Alto

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Junior units: Actually, it is not impossible. There is still some limited housing affordable for single parents. I know this because I own two small houses on one lot. I now live in one, at 885 sq. ft.,and rent the second small house. My tenant is a single parent with a child working a middle class jobwho can afford the rent. If my block were torn down, and new ultra-dense housing built to replace our single story multifamily homes, he would not be able to afford it as that housing would cost double or triple the rent I charge.

Yes, there is not enough housing at my price point. The only way to have more is for the city to subsidize it, possibly by buying land and then renting it to developers of moderate priced housing, the way Stanford does. There will never be enough. But reducing what we've got (which has happened over and over in the past 25 years), in order to add more luxury housing, helps no one but the 1%.

By the way, I think connection fees would apply to people building a separate property on their lot, not someone renting out a bedroom in their existing house with no additional bathrooms or kitchens. Most descriptions of AD's seem to be referring to a second house, not turning your own house into a dormitory.

Nor do I think Palo Alto should do anything to encourage more renters without making sure there is additional parking to meet their needs. Why should the residents of Palo Alto provide free parking for landlords at the expense of our neighborhoods? If you want to rent out part of your house, you should be responsible for providing parking. If you want to rent to someone without a car, fine. But what kind of law could we create that would allow for an AD that could be rented only to someone without a car? How could that be enforced?

2 people like this
Posted by junior suites
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 5, 2016 at 5:07 pm

I think something like half of all households living in PA are either one person or two people and yet many of them inhabit 3 or 4 bedroom homes and have a two car garage. By 2030 the over 55 population in PA will double and then the vast majority of households in PA will be one or two people for sure. They also likely have two driveway spaces. If you divide off a bedroom in that situation, I just don't see why you have to go gravel over half your backyard - you are one or two people who effectively already have 4 parking spaces. I don't see why we should create insanely expensive and also very environmentally destructive policies just because someone puts a lock on a bedroom.

That couple can ALREADY rent out that room to someone who has a car and not put in any parking spaces. So why does putting a lock on a door now require more concrete? I just don't understand.

There's also no guarantee that building out more parking spaces means they'll actually be used. Most everyone in PA has a garage and almost no one actually uses it to park their cars. I see people using it to store junk, as a work space, as a studio, as anything but a place to put a car. Most people already park in their driveways or on the street despite the fact that the city forced them to build garages.

So again I ask, why do people who put a lock on a bedroom get punished but the people who don't actually use their garages (the vast majority of PA) get off scott free?

If you were really worried about parking, you'd be advocating that people be fined for not parking in their garages. Instead you're trying to punish junior units and ADUs of which PA builds like 4 per year. Meanwhile PA has 14,000 single family homes most of which don't use their garages.

4 people like this
Posted by Renting Up
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 12, 2016 at 8:35 pm

The article above is sweet and totally sensible but is still not addressing long term, economically and environmentally sustainable living for hard working families. We live among the Giants: Apple shares and the googlezillionaires. Why not offset the high cost and they subsidize housing? We do this with Big Tabacco, highways, and roads. And it's nice to know that the more lucky and privileged homeowners may soon be able to rent out their garages, sheds, and a third and fourth bedroom to single people or older adult couples with no children or pets. Did I see yards being rented out in the above article? Maybe these are for those even less fortunate and abundant homeless individuals? But what about finacially struggling families trying to find their way through the out-of-this-world affluence - what I refer to as the Bay Area astroeconomy (astronomically high economy)

My family of four - myself, two young boys of 10 and 11 and my husband are renting a 650 sq.ft., 2 bedroom 1 bath apartment with a small side patio area which is not usable. The tremendously loud and constant automobile traffic noise coming from Alma street (More "Your Speed" electronic signs are needed along Palo Alto's Alma) reduces our livable space even more so. Note: The sound of the train is actually a pleasantry compared to the tremendously high volume noise of the car traffic. We make do however and live simply. However, my boys now are the size of Hobbits and are very active, energetic. They will soon dwarf me and our space.

Indeed, our minimal footage is not ideal. We utilize every square inch of the place we call it home. If I am not sounding grateful I am made so by an incredible school district, little worry about outdoor safety, a bikeable and walkable community. Since arriving almost two years ago we now use less gasoline and the boys are very near their paternal grandparents where they can run freely with an abundance of fresh air.

But again It's a constant readjustment of priorities. What we need vs. what we want lifestyle. On the other hand, I've traded rent up for stronger job opportunities, to live near aging grandparents, the use of great city parks, and a forward thinking community.

This said. I am a strong proponent of dense, multi-use Cal-Train corridor infill in the form affordable housing apartments for those that work here and support the local economy in Palo Alto. High-speed rail is good too but not commute 2/3 hours to work and back. It is Palo Alto that needs to take responsibility for the economy that Silicon Valley has created over the last 35 years. When my son's stress about the size of our home, I remind all of us why we are here. Every day we take advantage of the wonderful thriving school environment. But as a family, we also make sacrifices. I will never be able to buy in PA or the Bay Area for that matter. It however also, means I can walk to work, volunteer more in the classroom at my kids school near our rental. I am happy to spend more quality time with my family instead of behind the wheel of a car dumping vast quantities of time and energy on a freeway driving to a job to afford to buy more things.

The sad fact is. There will always remain a schism between California renters and home-owners. On the tip of everyone's tongue when I share that we live here. Do you own or rent. It's almost a precursor to personal name introductions.

Like this comment
Posted by Commentator
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 12, 2016 at 9:05 pm

"I am a strong proponent of dense, multi-use Cal-Train corridor infill in the form affordable housing apartments for those that work here and support the local economy in Palo Alto."

Has anyone else noticed that those oft-proposed "affordable housing apartment" ghettos down by the tracks are always to be inhabited by somebody else, and are invariably located out of sight from the proposer's own low-density neighborhood?

Just curious.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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