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New State Law Allows Existing Multi-family to Expand

As we face the new COVID-19 Crisis, other statewide emergencies have not gone away. Our acute housing shortage has not been reduced and the current shelter-in-place requirements have only made it harder to get things approved, let alone built. If anything, the housing shortage has gotten worse.


In 2018 California began evoking emergency Ancillary Dwelling Unit Ordinances. ADUs, also called Granny Flats, are considered a grassroots method of creating more housing, one dwelling at a time, throughout the State without traditional municipal scrutiny. These laws applied to all conventional single-family lots to make it easier to gain permits while reducing local limitations, such as setbacks, design scrutiny or parking requirements.


This has produced about 5,000 units statewide, a mere trickle of the annual 150,000 new unit demand. As 2019 ended, Sacramento passed two new laws AB68 and AB881 that extend the ADU special conditions to multifamily buildings and complexes in hopes of assisting cities in aggressively building more new apartments. The laws are commonly known as “Triplexes Laws” because they also allow the addition of a Junior Granny flat as well as a regular Granny flat alongside the main residence. By allowing two additional ADUs on a single-family lot, it is effectively ending Single Family Zoning as we’ve known it.

Assembly Bill No. 68


What’s buried in the fine print is allowing existing multifamily projects to construct on site up to 25% additional units, assuming they have the space. Any detached ADU would be limited to 16 feet in height and no closer than 4 feet from rear or side yard property line. Multiple Junior ADUs could be added to existing multifamily buildings by converting underutilized space within existing buildings.


As an example, an existing 12-unit apartment building could add three additional ADUs without increasing its density or coverage limitation.


Unlike many other cities in the Bay Area, Napa did not build a lot of high-density apartment complexes. Most of those built in the 50s – 70s and were low density, 12-20 units to an acre. So many of them have under-utilized property where adding apartments would make sense. One obvious solution would be to build on top of existing open or carport parking.


Parking is always a key question. One parking space per ADU is required unless it is within a half mile of a public transit or bus Stop. There’s even a condition allowing passenger pick-up spots which means, if Uber can get there, you don’t need parking.


What’s most important, this is considered an administrative approval without discretionary review or public hearing. A building permit is still required to meet local and state codes. Impact fees are limited if the unit is under 750 ft.². Interestingly, these multifamily ADUs can be developed at the same time as a primary unit. This automatically increases the maximum density of any zoned site by 25%.


These state laws must be implemented at the local level and the City of Napa is considering ordinance 02019- 008 “Ancillary Dwelling Units” although the current sequestering rules has put official city action on the back burner but expected it to go into effect in our near future.


Interestingly, as the Baby Boomer population ages, more granny flats will be necessary for seniors that don’t want to go to a “home” and accessibility will become an issue. Placing compact Granny Flats on second floors walk-ups could be an oxymoron. Providing adequate accessibility to and throughout the unit should be considered and included. Don’t forget the “Granny” in Granny Flat.


Chris d. Craiker, AIA/NCARB

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