An accessory dwelling unit on Virginia Street. Photo: Karen Chapple
An accessory dwelling unit on Virginia Street. Photo: Frameworks

Berkeley officials voted unanimously Tuesday night to streamline the process for homeowners who want to add secondary units — sometimes called in-law units or granny flats — to their properties.

Supporters of the draft plan say it is a sustainable approach to increasing density and will allow more local residents to age in place by cutting down on the bureaucratic hurdles tied to the construction of additions, while also making those projects cheaper.

The proposal, from Mayor Tom Bates, would allow homeowners who follow certain standards to build the units “by right,” meaning they would not need to apply for an administrative use permit prior to construction. Those permits can be costly and take a long time to make their way through the approval process. Building plans would still require review by city staff, but public hearings and neighborhood feedback would be off the table.

Explained UC Berkeley professor Karen Chapple, writing in 2011 for Frameworks, a publication of the university’s College of Environmental Design, “In-law units, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), are self-contained, smaller living units on the lot of a single-family home. They can be either attached to the primary house, such as an above-the-garage unit or a basement unit, or, as is more typical in Berkeley, an independent cottage or carriage-house. They are an easy way to provide homeowners with flexible space for a home office or an on-site caregiver, additional rental income, or a space for elderly family members to remain in a family environment. In short, they offer the kind of flexibility that has become imperative in today’s world to accommodate fluctuating work schedules and alternative family arrangements.”

(Chapple, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, received support from the UC Transportation Center to study how many of these units could be built around five East Bay BART stations, and how they might affect the local economy. Chapple — who serves on the city Planning Commission — also wrote a letter to council last week about the current proposal.)

Only residents who live in RPP, and within a quarter-mile of BART, would be eligible for parking waivers. (Click the map to see a larger version.) Image: City of Berkeley
Only residents who live in RPP zones, and within a quarter-mile of BART, would be eligible for parking waivers. (Click the map to see a larger version.) Image: City of Berkeley

The Berkeley item will need to come back to council before it becomes part of the city’s zoning code.

Bates had initially proposed a minimum lot size of 3,800 square feet for those who want to build the units, but council agreed unanimously Tuesday night to expand the program to lots of any size, as long as they meet other criteria, which are outlined at the bottom of this story.

The accessory units could either be attached to the main structure or detached. Council set a maximum height limit of 14 feet, and said the new units cannot exceed 75% of the size of the primary structure, and cannot be larger than 750 square feet. The second unit and main residence together cannot cover more than 40% of the lot.

Properties within permit parking zones and a quarter-mile of Berkeley BART stations will not be required to provide an additional parking space under the proposal. Homes outside that radius would be allowed to use their driveways for tandem parking, meaning one vehicle parks behind another. (Tandem parking is currently limited under the code due to front yard setback requirements.)

Applicants who don’t live in permit parking zones near BART stations will still be able to request a parking waiver if they elect to pursue an administrative use permit. Residents of the new units will be ineligible for parking permits.

Read a draft of the proposal, which council updated Tuesday night. Scroll to the bottom of this story for details about what was approved. 

In a statement released Wednesday, Bates described the measure as “groundbreaking,” and said it “opens the door to a substantial supply of badly needed new housing.”

“The plan also will support the City’s efforts to combat global warming by increasing urban density, especially near mass transit,” said Bates in the statement.

Left, 1415 Allston Way; right, 1843 Berryman Street. Photo: Karen Chapple
Left, 1415 Allston Way; right, 1843 Berryman Street. Photos: Frameworks

Tuesday night’s Berkeley City Council vote is the latest step in a process that has been in the works for years. According to the mayor’s office, a state law passed in 2002 mandated California cities to allow second units in single-family residential districts, subject to conditions outlined by local jurisdictions. In 2003, Berkeley officials voted to apply that law to all the city’s zoning districts. In April 2013, council asked the city’s Planning and Transportation commissions to a review the possible expansion of conditions for adding accessory dwelling units in Berkeley.

Members of the public who spoke in favor of the proposal said Tuesday that the change would allow them to reduce their property taxes and get more value out of their land. Several people also expressed concerns about the plan, however, saying it is too broad and does not allow for enough feedback from neighbors.

“Neighbors ought to have the opportunity to come in and complain about the design,” said West Berkeley resident Ed Moore.

But council members overall said they want to make it easier and faster for residents to pursue their plans to add the units, and voted to support an ordinance to allow homeowners who build to the standards to move ahead without neighborhood input.

Left, Ventura Avenue at Marin Avenue; right, Edwards Street at Channing Way. Photos: Karen Chapple
Left, Ventura and Marin avenues; right, Edwards Street at Channing Way. Photos: Frameworks

Councilwoman Lori Droste lobbied to reduce the parking requirements by allowing parking waivers citywide for homes within a quarter-mile of major transit lines. She said the policy decision would be in line with the city’s Climate Action Plan goals, and would make for more sustainable outcomes. Droste also noted that data has shown that people who live in accessory units are twice as likely to be car-free.

“I don’t think it’s a sound policy decision to require onerous parking requirements,” she said. “Do we want to make it easier for people to find housing and increase the housing supply, or make it easier for people to park?”

She continued: “If you create these parking spots, it actually increases traffic congestion and impacts quality of life.”

Replied Bates: “I love the enthusiasm, but I just think it’s way, way over the top.”

Droste, along with council members Darryl Moore, Laurie Capitelli and Kriss Worthington, voted in favor of fewer parking requirements, but the council majority voted to stick with the mayor’s broader requirements, which limit the number of people eligible for waivers.

Read more about parking issues in Berkeley.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she was concerned about whether the additions would fit in with the existing neighborhood architecture. She suggested that Berkeley follow Oakland’s lead by requiring the new units to have similar features to the homes already on site. She said too that, just because the units will be located in backyards does not mean they won’t be visible from the street.

“We have to be aware of the fact that this is going to change neighborhood character,” she said. “The design of these second units should be compatible in some way with the primary unit.”

Some council members said they were concerned that adding those additional guidelines would make it more difficult for the units to be built. Council members Capitelli and Jesse Arreguín voted in favor of Wengraf’s proposed amendment, but it failed to get enough support to move forward.

Council asked the city manager to bring back an ordinance to implement the new standards, but did not set a deadline for that to take place. Ultimately the item was approved by an 8-0 vote. Councilman Max Anderson was absent due to health problems, according to the mayor.

What was approved under the new proposal

  • Lot size requirement: None
  • Maximum size: 750 square feet or 75% of the primary structure, whichever is less
  • Height: 14-foot maximum height at peak of roof, 10-foot maximum at eave of roof; not to exceed 10 feet at property line
  • Setback: 4-foot minimum side and rear setback from property line; no side or rear setback required if ADU will replace preexisting buildings on the property line
  • Parking: Tandem parking in driveway is allowed (including non-conforming driveways that don’t comply with the minimum 2-foot landscaping strip). Proposed ADUs that are within a quarter-mile of a BART station and located in an RPP zone will have no additional parking requirement. No Residential Parking Permit will be issued to an ADU under all circumstances.
  • Other: Legal property owner shall live in main dwelling unit or ADU. If ADU is built on property line, doors and windows cannot face neighbors’ property. Should be excluded from use as short term rentals. ADUs are prohibited in the Environmental Safety Residential (ESR) zone. ADUs may be allowed with an AUP [administrative use permit] on lots on streets that do not meet minimum fire access requirements. ADU may be allowed only if the fire flow and water pressure meet minimum fire safety requirements.

[Correction: The new units cannot exceed 75% of the size of the main structure, or 750 square feet, whichever is less. Also, only properties within a quarter-mile of BART and in residential parking permit zones qualify for the parking waiver. This story initially including conflicting information that has been corrected.]

Op-ed: Berkeley should ease parking rules for in-law units (03.23.15)
Berkeley council on accessory units, parks budget, limits on frats and mini-dorms, more (03.23.15)
A city looks for big solutions in little – very little – houses (01.07.11)
Studying the benefits of accessory dwelling units (UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...