.Upfront: Breaking the impasse?

Junior second units move into the affordable housing debate spotlight

by Peter Seidman

A little community pressure on the North Marin Water District (NMWD) signaled the possibility of a second-unit bloom in Marin County.

The fertilization of the second-unit concept comes as part of a push to persuade water districts that are charging regular water connection fees for what are called junior second units makes little sense and stymies a housing model that could break an impasse in the affordable housing debate—or at least contribute to breaking the impasse.

At issue is whether a new paradigm of housing (actually it’s an old model) should be subjected to the same regulatory and fee requirements as a full second unit. Junior second units are a relatively new concept, or a reborn concept, and utility districts have no rules for them—yet.

If proponents of the new housing model can lower the fee barrier and reduce the amount that homeowners must pay to hook up utilities to new junior second units, they could provide some of the lowest rental units in the Marin market.

The NMWD is working to set connection fees for the junior units. Proponents say that the fees, if any, should be set low enough to encourage homeowners to build junior units.

Virtually everyone agrees that the county needs housing for its younger residents that allows them to remain in Marin. The county and its cities also need housing for the increasingly large older population that allows older residents to remain in the county in private houses. Junior second units fit the bill, say proponents.

And to top off the attraction, they add, the state says that the junior units qualify as housing when it’s time to tally residential stock for regional housing need calculations. That should satisfy members of the community who balk at creating new housing along the Highway 101 corridor and its arterials to satisfy state mandates.

Junior second units, while far from a panacea when it comes to providing affordable housing, could go a long way toward adding an important link in a continuum of housing options—one that currently doesn’t exist to any appreciable extent.

Late last year, Novato passed an ordinance that set rules and regulations for junior second units, which the city included as a possibility in its housing element. The city codified the philosophical stance with the ordinance.

It delineates the differences between full second units and junior units. “Accessory Dwelling Units [are] a second permanent dwelling that is accessory to a legal primary dwelling on the same site. An accessory dwelling unit provides complete independent living facilities for one or more persons, including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, sanitation and parking. An accessory dwelling unit also includes manufactured homes.

“Junior Accessory Dwelling Units [are] a type of accessory dwelling unit that is accessory to and included within a legal primary dwelling on the same site. A junior accessory dwelling unit provides independent living facilities for one or more persons, including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating and cooking. Cooking and food preparation facilities shall be limited to an efficiency kitchen … Sanitation facilities may be independently provided for the junior accessory dwelling unit or may be shared with occupants of the primary dwelling, provided interior access is available.”

A junior unit in the city can be between 150 square-feet and 500 square-feet. Junior units are inside the main home and may or may not share a bathroom. In Novato, they will have dedicated exterior access, making them a separate living arrangement from the main dwelling. There may be a door between the junior unit and the main house. But that door may be closed and unused, much like a door between rooms in a hotel. The door, however, also could be open, giving the occupants of the main house and the junior unit options to alter their living arrangement. The key is that owners of the main house can convert a bedroom to a junior second unit by, at the least, adding a sink and counter space to accommodate small electric appliances. No gas connections are allowed. The junior unit may have a bathroom, but it may not have one, and occupants may use the bathroom in the main house. It’s up to residents of the structure.

Rachel Ginis knows the value of junior second units. About 15 years ago, she was a single mother living in Corte Madera, trying hard to make ends meet in her single-family home. She realized that renting space in her home could generate much-needed income to cover expenses. But her ideas went beyond renting just a bedroom. By creating what amounted to a junior second unit, Ginis arrived at a solution that allowed her to bring in rent on a temporary basis.

The glitch, she discovered, was that Corte Madera had no ordinances that allowed her creation to exist.

That seemed to make no sense then, and proponents say it makes no sense now. Paying relatively high connection fees for water, power and sewer is unfair because no new connections are required for a junior second unit, unlike new connections to a detached full second unit. Ginis is a residential designer and understood the possibilities that the fees were blocking innovation. “I recognized the point that they hurt everybody,” she says, “the homeowners as well as the prospective residents of the junior unit. I recognized that the fees made no sense; they were unreasonable.”

And because Corte Madera had no ordinance delineating rules for junior units, the unit Ginis created was illegal. The experience led her on the path she now travels as the CEO of Lilypad Homes. The company started as a for-profit firm that guided people through the planning process for second units. Ginis and Lilypad also participated in designing units for clients. Although the first incarnation of the company was aimed at making a profit, Ginis says, Lilypad is moving toward full nonprofit status. A key part of that move is encapsulated in the Lilypad Flexible Housing Initiative.

The idea of creating junior units that can increase what Ginis calls flexible housing in existing homes presents a potentially interesting vision: Opponents of using what they call high-density housing as a way to satisfy the need for additional housing in Marin usually say that they have no objection to building affordable housing, it’s just that high-density housing is the devil they want to keep at bay. The county and its cities should explore alternative ways to produce more housing options, they say, a critical need for potential middle- and lower-income residents.

As Ginis has spread the word about her junior second unit concept, she says, she has met overwhelming support from a full spectrum of housing advocates all the way to slow-growth advocates. And the state will accept the units in housing need calculations.

Just how many of the junior units can be added to the county’s housing stock is a big, open question. But whatever the number, added junior units could be a welcome addition to the calculations. So far, all of the cities in Marin except two have included the junior second-unit concept in their housing elements. Fairfax and Ross have yet to make the addition. The county housing element also lacks junior second units. But Ginis thinks that it’s just a matter of time. It’s too good to reject, say supporters. Novato and Tiburon were the first cities that actually wrote junior second-unit ordinances, after including them in their respective housing elements.

There’s just one hitch in the junior unit step. And it made itself known in Novato, which is the first city to wrestle with the intricacies of a junior unit ordinance. At the top of the list was a potential junior unit killer—a water connection fee. The North Marin Water District charges $10,000 for a new connection. That’s the fee that a homeowner would pay to connect a full second unit. But because a junior unit is inside a home that already has a connection, the high fee is unfair, says junior unit supporters. Novato’s mayor asked the NMWD to reduce the fee to a level that homeowners of relatively modest means could afford. That seemed reasonable because a strong impetus for creating junior units comes from a need to generate income to stay in a home. An unrealistically high fee also could scare off those contemplating new junior units in their homes and push the homeowners and their renters into the shadows. The whole idea is to bring the units into the light.

Following the mayor’s request, the North Marin Water District staff came back with a new number: Homeowners could add a junior unit water connection for $6,100, even though an existing house needed no additional connection. The Coalition for a Livable Marin said that the reduced fee was still “way too high, and it will throw cold water on one of the most promising housing policies in the county.” Kiki La Porta, involved with the organization’s steering committee, made the case that “a $6,100 fee would put legal second-unit conversions out of reach for most people. She asked with a rhetorical flourish, “Isn’t infill housing, in character with the surrounding community, exactly what we want to promote?”

Her reasoning, as well as the comments from other members of the community, swayed the water district board, which sent the issue of the fee back to staff for more consideration. The district might further reduce the fee, possibly to what Bob Brown, Novato Community Development director, calls a small administrative charge. Advocates of the junior-unit concept say that they think the experience at the board level is a win. (The Marin Municipal Water District is looking at its fee structure for connections and could include the junior-unit concept in those considerations. Brown is optimistic that the MMWD will look kindly on junior units.)

Ginis says that it’s a matter of fairness: In Novato, a homeowner pays no additional connection fee to add a wet bar sink. Why should a homeowner who adds a sink in a bedroom converted to a junior unit have to pay a connection fee?

Brown says that Ginis came to him with the idea for junior units, and it took considerable work to hammer out a workable ordinance. “I spent the first three meetings with her describing why this couldn’t happen,” he says. “But there was a nugget of a good idea there. We kept at it and figured out a way it could be written in the terms of a city ordinance.”

Brown and Ginis worked for about six months. The city approved it, but then there was the issue of negotiating through the utilities. There still is. “If we can get the utility districts to waive fees,” or at least to provide substantive discounts, it could go a long way to supporting a new segment of the Marin housing stock. (Second units have been around for a long time, but the cities in Marin and the county have approved precious few over the years.)

“This is just repurposing a bedroom,” says Brown, not adding traffic, congestion or density. “The number of people that would be in the home was taken into account when the home was originally built.” Over the years, fewer and fewer people have occupied the average home in Marin and in the state. Currently, according to Brown, more than half of the homes in the state and in Marin have only one or two occupants.

Brown says that if supporters can get the utility agencies on board and a few more cities join the push, he will submit the story to Western City Magazine, the League of California Cities’ publication, for wide distribution as a new housing paradigm—or actually a return to the multi-generational model that flourished before World War II.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

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