“In a truly rare turn of events, California’s successful approach to legalizing more types of housing is serving as inspiration for reforms elsewhere in the country.
Over the past several years, lawmakers in the Golden State have passed a suite of bills that make it much easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs), sometimes called granny flats or in-law suites, on their property, while also making it harder for local governments to stop such construction.
It’s proven to be one of the few YIMBY (yes, in my backyard)-inspired zoning reforms that has actually led to more housing being built. Now other states and cities with their own affordability crunches are passing or considering their own ADU deregulations.
Last week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, released her 200-page State of the State legislative agenda. Among other things, it took a swipe at local rules that prevent homeowners from turning their garage or attic into a new housing unit.
ADUs “can provide an affordable multi-generational housing option that helps families live closer together,” reads the State of the State book. “Current land use restrictions prevent homeowners in some communities from building ADUs.”
The governor’s agenda says she’ll propose legislation that would require localities to allow at least one ADU on owner-occupied residential lots. This legislation, per the agenda, would also prevent localities from adopting rules that legalize ADUs on paper, but prevent their construction in practice.
That reflects a lesson learned from California’s ADU experience, where state laws allowing homeowners to build a backyard apartment have technically been on the books since the 1980s.
For decades, however, cities were able to stop them from being built by imposing infeasible requirements that they come with off-street parking, be a minimum size, or receive special, discretionary permits in order to be built.
It took the passage of several additional bills between 2016 and 2019 limiting what localities could require of ADUs, and then several lawsuits to actually enforce those new rules, to really kick off new ADU construction.
The results have been pretty amazing so far.”
“To be sure, neither California’s nor New York’s high housing costs are going to be completely solved by more granny flats. But these reforms are an important piece of the puzzle.”