Berkeley City Council is attempting to promote creation of long-term housing by reducing restrictions on “granny flats” and “accessory dwelling units” (ADU’s). The state of California similarly has Government Code Section 65583(c)(1). But something crucial is missing: social protection for homeowners.

Operating an ADU or granny flat is socially quite different from owning an apartment building. An ADU or granny flat tenant may share a driveway, a mailbox, laundry or part of a garden with the house. The tenant may understand the comings and goings at the home, who’s sleeping with whom, any ongoing dispute with children or a spouse. The homeowner may see the tenant multiple times in a day. In short it can be a fairly intimate arrangement. The Berkeley Rent Board acknowledges this when discussing a one-time exception that applied as of 1979:

“The rationale [for this exemption] from rent control is the belief that an owner who shares a small property with a tenant will have a more familial relationship with his tenant and, therefore, there is less need for external rules to protect the tenant from unwarranted rent increases.”

But this 1979 exemption does not translate into modern protections for the homeowner. Anyone establishing a granny flat now is squarely in the realm of rent control. If the tenant turns creepy, or it’s just no longer working out, the homeowner may be stuck with the arrangement for the life of the tenant. Imagine if the same principle applied to marriage: what if the law stated you could get divorced from your spouse but you were still required to live in the same house?

This situation came up for my parents. They bought in the 1960’s and rented a granny flat to a tenant in 1998. For 18 years they never raised the $500/month rent. Through no particular fault on either side, time has come when this arrangement is no longer workable. None of the ‘just cause’ for eviction apply, and despite encouragement and prior promises, the tenant will not move on. Lawyers advise that forcing an eviction via the Ellis Act would cost at least $25,000 in direct payments and legal fees after appeals and that selling with the tenant attached could easily shave $100,000 off the price. Some thanks they get for providing 18 years of subsidized housing: my parents now have an unwelcome and intrusive guest living in their home. They feel stuck.

For these reasons and more, it should come as no surprise that so many Berkeley homeowners are choosing to rent via Airbnb (where any commitment is limited to a matter of days), rather than leasing to a local (who may overstay their welcome by decades).

If Council wants to truly see ADU space opened up by local homeowners, something needs to change about the rent laws.

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Nesbitt was born and raised in Berkeley, and now with his wife is a Berkeley homeowner, raising two children. He will not offer an ADU under the current rent control laws.
Nesbitt was born and raised in Berkeley, and now with his wife is a Berkeley homeowner, raising two children. He will not offer an ADU under the current rent control laws.