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North Bay housing need’s great, but here’s an opportunity

Rachel Ginis is executive director of Marin County-based Lilypad Homes.

RACHEL GINIS, LILYPAD HOMES

We have a tremendous opportunity to create housing in the North Bay, housing that is more secure and affordable for renters and for homeowners, many of whom are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of living.

New state laws facilitate the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which include cottage homes, garage conversions, and private apartments made from spare space within homes.

Two of the laws were mandates that eliminated burdensome requirements for many ADUs, like fire sprinklers and additional parking, and reduced or waived costly fees. The third instituted a new type of ADU into state law, junior accessory dwelling units (JADUs). Junior units represent our simplest and lowest cost option for building new homes, and because ADUs take the land cost out of the equation, an abundant, cost-effective solution for housing could exist in our very own homes.

Junior units are created by carving out a space of not more than 500 square feet from one or more bedrooms within a single-family home. These small stand-alone apartments have efficiency kitchens with a sink and small plug-in appliances. They share central water and heating systems, but have private entrances and a private bathroom, or access to a shared bathroom. They remain connected to the main living area through doors that can be secured, so they function as flexible, independent apartments.

Over 3,000 people opened their homes to temporarily house strangers displaced in the recent fires. We are in the middle of a housing crisis, but many people are over-housed, and wish to downsize, but don’t want to leave the homes and neighborhoods they know and love. By creating an ADU, homeowners can stay comfortably in their homes and build greater community without compromising their privacy. And, in the wake of the fires, the need for housing has never been more acute.

If we are going to realize the potential for ADUs, it is not enough to pass code that allows for their development. If we want homeowners to take on the task and cost of constructing housing, shouldn’t we be providing them with information and incentives, and offering them the support needed to take on a project that would be daunting to anyone? Shouldn’t we be providing folks with financing options to construct these units and assisting them in the development process? Shouldn’t we be streamlining the permitting process and providing transparency so people can understand the costs up front, not only the permitting and utility fees, but also taxes associated with having a unit?

Many homeowners don’t know that having an additional unit has been shown to increase property values, that these units will help many seniors remain in their homes and age in place, that some jurisdictions are allowing for both an ADU and a junior unit on the same property, and that these units can open doors to homeownership because of new loans that allow people to qualify for a mortgage based on income generated from the rental.

We need to be bold and innovate. If we really want people to seize this opportunity, we need to create loans that recognize the future value of the home and the future income from the unit. That is the magic formula to unleash the potential in this market. We can also open doors to homeownership by offering a similar remodeling mortgage. And workers in our community could even purchase homes because they were going to live in the ADU or junior unit and qualify for the mortgage based on rental income from the main living area.

I am excited about the public programs that assist lower income households to develop these units, as well as programs that create housing for lower income renters in the community. The City of Napa’s program offers a loan of up to $40K for the development of a junior unit. 5% of the loan is forgiven each year the unit is rented to someone who qualifies as low-income. In this way it acts as a pass-through rental subsidy. If fire relief funds could be utilized to create similar programs in Sonoma and elsewhere in Napa, homeowners could get loans to create these units as emergency housing for the many lower income workers and people who lost their homes in the fires, and these units would continue to provide housing for the mid and long term.

The fires that raged through Sonoma and Napa have brought the community together to support one another in new ways. Let’s use this as an opportunity to rebuild the North Bay and create housing that will make us an economically stronger, more diverse, sustainable and resilient community that is better prepared to face the challenges ahead. We have so much to be thankful for and an enormous opportunity to create housing in this glorious place that we all call home.