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."