Alex Torres and Mia Villanueva have lived in their quiet South Berkeley neighborhood near Grove Park for nearly 20 years, occupying a two-bedroom apartment in a building with three elderly tenants.
They left for a weekend camping trip last October while renovations were ongoing at their building, and returned to find construction crews jackhammering their parking lot for a surprising development — a four-bedroom accessory dwelling unit. It was the first time they had heard about a new housing project a few feet away from their front steps.
The fact that the property owner could build a new unit right up to the sidewalk and so close to their apartment surprised Torres and Villanueva. But the situation is unsurprising for those who have followed the progression of California’s laws around ADUs, in-law units, or granny flats. A package of legislation approved by voters and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 simplified design processes and did away with many of the restrictions around building housing, including lengthy approval processes, public hearings and notification requirements.
This meant ADUs that met the statewide standards (800 square feet for a single-bedroom addition, 1,000 square feet for multiple rooms, 1,200 square feet for cities without updated ADU ordinances) could be approved ministerially, or somewhat automatically. And the building on the parking lot in front of Torres and Villanueva’s apartment fit those criteria.
The new laws were one of several steps taken by state and local legislators to respond to a crushing housing and homelessness crisis in California. Local cities have since been tasked with adopting the relatively inflexible guidelines to bring more homes into their communities. For units that don’t meet the exemption, cities can develop ADU ordinances to limit size and design features.
Berkeley doesn’t yet have a new ADU ordinance to reflect the 2019 law change, and its January 2020 urgency ordinance expired in December amid several municipal planning delays caused by the pandemic. In its latest amendment towards a formal ordinance, the Berkeley Planning Commission this week unanimously approved a small incentive for developers to create more space in front of their ADUs (known as “setbacks”) and avoid structures like the one on Harper Street.
The city is required to follow state law and cannot mandate front setbacks, meaning buildings can be constructed right up to the edge of the sidewalk. There are varying opinions on whether that space is even necessary, or impedes goals to create plentiful, equitable housing.
The traditional idea of an ADU has long been shaped around units tucked into backyards for extended families, children and parents, but the ADU on Harper Street has a much bolder presence. The modern, box-shaped blue-and-white structure is pushed up to street level at the sidewalk, and stands out among the nearby Berkeley-esque brown-shingled homes with stoops, front gardens and driveways. It is 1,005 square feet, which is just slightly bigger than it could be if Berkeley already had an ADU ordinance limiting it to a state-allowed size restriction of 1,000 square feet.
Architect Matt Baran of Oakland-based Baran Studio Architecture designed the project for property owner Justin Wallway of JDW Enterprises, and sees its distinct design difference from the neighborhood as one of the ADU’s strengths. Wallway could not be reached for comment.
“There is a new urban form that is appropriate to what we need in these communities that makes housing more affordable and more accessible and opens these communities up,” said Baran, whose firm has designed hundreds of ADUs throughout Berkeley, Oakland and the Bay Area, including several in front of existing homes. “I’ve never felt like having everything look the same was a good thing.”
He said people don’t like change in their neighborhoods, but setbacks, particular design standards and lengthy notification processes are all reasons why Berkeley has remained an exclusive city, with fewer housing projects compared to its neighbors, for so long.
“The idea that the city should be this kind of bucolic farmland…it’s out of step with what the city actually needs — to be inclusionary and be affordable,” Baran said.
During the planning commission meeting on Wednesday night, several public commenters raised concerns over the project’s design and the way it was brought forth. Berkeley Neighborhood Council executive and alternate commissioner Janis Ching set an image of the Harper Street ADU as her Zoom background to make a point about its physical presence.
After a short discussion, commissioners all agreed to recommend an ordinance for detached ADUs (like the one at Harper Street) that would allow developers to build them slightly larger (850 square feet compared to 800 square feet) if they do create front setbacks.
“We can’t get around construction that [follows] the state’s bare minimum requirement,” Deputy City Attorney Chris Jensen said during the meeting. “So we’re trying to walk the line where there are front yard setback requirements and we’re trying to steer people away from this kind of project that most people here think is inappropriate, while also complying with state law, so that’s the line we’re trying to walk.”
The planning commission is also urging the City Council to put in place signage or some kind of notification (similar to yellow project proposal signs) when ADUs are developed. This responsibility would fall on the city, and not developers, as that could butt heads with state law.
“There’s a lot we can’t mandate about being a good neighbor, and we don’t want to mislead neighbors into thinking they have control over a project,” Commissioner Savlan Hauser said. “[We can] cultivate supportive neighbors, but not make it a mandatory component of approval of a project.”
The lack of notification was one of the most upsetting parts of the process for tenants like Torres and Villanueva, who live in a building entirely occupied by people of color, some of whom do not speak English as their primary language. Torres said he didn’t realize how much the ADU laws had changed when he voted for them, and there’s nothing they can do now to push back against the project, but they still would have appreciated a heads up.
Debris and buildiing materials clogged up the narrow entrance pathways into the building at the time of construction, and their elderly neighbor, who primarily uses a wheelchair, had to call them for help multiple times when he was blocked off from accessing his ground-story home.
“We do realize we are tenants, we do realize we don’t own this building — we would have had to accept this,” Villanueva explained, but she said even tenants (and not just local homeowners) are entitled to concerns about design elements like setbacks, and the way they interact with the neighborhood. Especially during the pandemic, she said having a small open area in the front of their apartment was a pleasant reprieve.
“There’s a right way to do things, and a wrong way, and this felt like the wrong way,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva works for Berkeley Unified School District and she and Torres said they would have been priced out from the neighborhood long ago without their affordable, rent-controlled unit. They’re grateful for their home and neighborhood, but said their circumstance and those of their neighbors means they can’t advocate too hard for themselves when it comes to smaller issues like losing a parking lot, or larger concerns that the building of a new ADU could lead to their displacement.
“[It would have been different] if they sat with us and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to build an ADU.’ They didn’t do that, which made me suspicious of their intentions,” Torres said, explaining that before Berkeley voters approved Measure MM last November (after the Harper Street ADU began construction), he was worried that the ADU would allow the property to become “owner-occupied” and allow his family to be evicted.
“I feel blessed that we were able to hold on to a place like this, raise a child and be part of a neighborhood,” Torres said.
For Baran, though, the predicament faced by Torres, Villanueva and the other tenants at Harper Street is emblematic of something that more ADUs could address. He said they should have a wealth of affordable housing options locally, not feel grateful that they’re able to find one place in the city that they can afford and feel belonging in.
“One of the things I find really painful, is that we would prioritize cars over housing,” Baran said. “If they completely banned [building over parking], or stopped it from happening, there would probably be a great deal of housing that would be lost.”