An accessory dwelling unit on Virginia Street. Photo: Frameworks

The housing crisis in the Bay Area has spurred many accusations of NIMBYism —the tendency to say “Not in My Backyard” when new housing is proposed.

The Berkeley City Council voted last week to make it easier to literally build housing in one’s backyard. Berkeley’s ordinance on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — granny flats, in-law units or cottages, in layman’s terms — is now up to state code and more lenient than it used to be.

New state ADU laws went into effect in January, nullifying all local ordinances that did not meet the new standards. While Berkeley already made it much easier to build ADUs in 2015, the city was still more restrictive than the new California law allows.

ADUs are “a really affordable option for increasing density in our residential neighborhoods,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín at the March 14 City Council meeting. “And I think these amendments, which are making it conform to state law, will go a long way to making it easier for people to construct ADUs in the city.”

The state law prohibits parking requirements for ADUs if they are located half a mile from public transit. All Berkeley lots fit that description. Berkeley’s former rules were only a bit stricter, requiring parking unless the lot was half a mile from BART or a quarter mile from other transit. Berkeley will also have to be more flexible when determining what replacement parking is required if an ADU gets rid of an existing parking space.

The state law also says cities cannot require new utility connections or related fees for secondary connections. Fire sprinklers cannot be required if the primary unit does not require them either. The city previously required new, costly sewer connections for some ADUs.

Also among the tweaks to Berkeley’s ordinance: matching the minimum size requirement to the state’s, and creating different standards for ADUs depending on whether they are connected to the primary building or not, so there are fewer restrictions on attached units.

Councilwoman Lori Droste said she thinks the changes to Berkeley’s ordinance will make the difference for many residents contemplating whether or not to build an ADU.

“I heard a lot of complaints from people around these minor hurdles they were encountering,” she said.

The City Council already lifted a major hurdle in March 2015 when it allowed by-right construction of ADUs so property owners could add their accessory units without obtaining an administrative use permit. The same law relaxed parking, lot size, and other zoning requirements. A 2011 study by Karen Chapple, a UC Berkeley professor and Berkeley planning commissioner, found that nearly 2,000 Berkeley lots would be eligible for ADUs if zoning changes were made.

Proponents of ADUs say they can offer older residents the ability to age in place, provide some relief to parents and adult children alike when kids move back after college, or bring in rental income.

Shawn Rowles, a real estate agent who owns a home in West Berkeley, is in the process of constructing an ADU he plans to rent out.

ADUs will allow some small homeowners and not only large landlords to make some profit, he said.

Councilmembers who are often on opposite sides of divisive housing issues spoke in support of ADUs, which escape some, but not all, of the controversy.

“These are not big-box. These are intimate units,” said Councilman Ben Bartlett, who said his sister lives in an ADU.

“In a community where adding new buildings is difficult and controversial,” ADUs offer an alternative, said Denise Pinkston, vice-chair of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board, who helped write one of the new state laws.

However, some say cottages and other extra units make tight parking even tighter or might lead to changes in a neighborhood’s character without input from residents not building ADUs. And there is concern that ADUs are prime candidates for short-term rental, taking much-needed housing off the market.

In February the City Council passed a short-term rental ordinance, making new ADUs ineligible for short-term rental. Under the ordinance it is legal to rent existing ADUs for fewer than 10 days if they have not been used for long-term rental in the past 10 years. There are currently some Berkeley ADUs listed on websites like Airbnb.

“I didn’t vote for adding ADUs thinking they would be hotel rooms,” said Councilwoman Linda Maio in 2016, when the council was considering short-term rental laws.

The new amendments cap a years-long process of making it legal and more feasible to create ADUs in Berkeley.

“It’s been a long road,” Droste said.

Correction: This article was updated on March 21 with a correction relating to short-term rental laws. It previously stated that it is illegal to rent use any ADU for short-term rental. 

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...