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Will Sonoma ease restrictions on ‘granny units’?

www.lilypadhomes.org


As a single mother, Rachel Ginis wanted to make sure she remained financially secure, and that her daughter didn’t have to change schools. Using her background in design and construction, she turned her master bedroom into a small separate residence, and rented out the rest of her 1,400-square-foot house.

“I repurposed my space and it enabled me to hold onto my home,” she said. “Your house is your greatest resource and I believe you should be able to adapt it to meet your needs.”

Ginis’ wishes may soon be coming true.

Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1069, making accessory dwelling units – so-called “granny units” – easier and less expensive to build throughout the state. In late January, Sonoma County followed suit with a similar county ordinance.

And on Feb. 9, the Sonoma Planning Commission began exploring Sonoma-specific ways to relax regulations concerning the building and permitting of “accessory dwelling units” inside the city limits.

Accessory units are the broad term for both the repurposing of an existing bedroom within a home and the building of a free-standing unit on a property. For renters, these small apartments are inherently more affordable due to their small size. For homebuyers, the guaranteed income stream from a rental property will help them qualify for mortgages and can open the door to more people owning homes.

Ginis, who now lives in Kenwood, sees the dramatic changes of the past six months at the state and local level as nothing less than a minor miracle.

“The environment is rapidly shifting in favor of infill housing,” she said. “What was so difficult last year is doable this year. Permitting is getting easier, faster and less expensive. Legislators are realizing that we can’t solve the housing crisis without redeveloping existing homes to meet the needs of a changing society.”

Thanks to her rental unit, not only was Ginis able to stay on in her home, it also gave her the financial footing to launch Lilypad Homes, a nonprofit devoted to helping North Bay residents identify and construct junior accessory units, those under 500 square feet, in their own homes.

“I was able to create a job for myself that combined my passions, my education and my skills to solve a very real problem,” she said. “Most houses in America were built for nuclear families and that’s not who we are anymore. We need to move back to a multi-generational housing model. It is too expensive to grown old in California right now, the cost of living is too high.”

She adds that most Americans want to “age in place” but few have the resources to do so.

“So many houses have underutilized space, and renting out part of their home might enable large percentages of seniors to stay in their homes,” she said.

Ginis’ team provides advice and support in permitting, financing, design and construction. She also helps people who have unpermitted units bring them up to code. Her website even provides a sample lease designed specifically for people renting out space in their house.

Real estate agent Tracy Reynes says that in-law apartments are very popular with Sonoma Valley buyers.

“These units can provide an income stream as a full-time rental, making home ownership a little more affordable,” she said.

www.lilypadhomes.org

“It’s a win for both homeowners and for renters,” agrees former Mayor Laurie Gallian, who has watched the issue closely for years, and championed the housing-relief possibilities created by SB 1069 during her campaign for city council last fall.

“Whether it is students, commuters, vineyard interns, young professionals, caretakers, or retirees, having a better supply of small apartments, of entry level housing, in our town, without new construction, is so important,” said Gallian.

Ginis adds that it could lead to healthier communities by enabling residents to live where they work. “It is so important and particularly in places like Sonoma Valley, less and less common,” said Ginis.

The question on everyone’s mind seems to be whether homeowners will indeed use the junior units to loosen Sonoma’s tight housing market, or just try to rent them out for short-term vacation rentals – despite the city’s moratorium on new vacation rentals.

For the past four years, Kathleen Harold has rented out a 250-square-foot studio bedroom with its own entrance in her east side home through Airbnb. While she loves having an accessory unit, she wishes she could still offer it for short-term rentals as well.

“The rent it brings in is how I have been able to keep my home,” said Harold, a widow. She uses Airbnb for bookings because she doesn’t want to be a landlord and they provide the liability coverage. She happily pays her TOT (hotel) tax to the City but says she makes 76 percent less renting the bedroom out month to month than she did by the night.

Her rental doesn’t have a full kitchen so that limits interest among long-term rentals, and adding a kitchen would be prohibitively expensive for her.

There is an inherent tension between boosting the housing stock and the desire of homeowners to maximize the income from their house.

Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison says that the planning commission’s current examination of the issue is focused only on easing rules surrounding hosted (the owner must live on the property) accessory units that could only be rented out for 30 days or more.

Changes to the city’s rules on accessory units would focus on speeding up the permitting process and lowering potential barriers to building them.

“How well the City sets up its parameters will determine how successful this plan will be,” said Gallian.

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com