In 2020, the California economy imploded, wildfires burned hundreds of homes sending toxic smoke over our cities, and a novel virus infected nearly a million people in the state, killing more than 17,550 at last count. Through it all, California remained one of the most expensive places on the planet in which to live.
The affordability crisis is more durable than our droughts. It stems from Prop 13, a decades-old taxpayer revolt that capped tax increases on residential property. That spurred cities to allow more commercial development for additional sales tax at the expense of residential development. Over time, California added jobs for people who increasingly had nowhere to live.
Last week, the San Mateo County civil grand jury urged local governments to tackle this problem by encouraging “accessory dwelling units,” which are sometimes known as second units or granny flats. (We guess grandpa is just supposed to live in the car.) Encouraging such development within existing single-family neighborhoods is a good idea for a variety of reasons, but it’s unlikely to make much of a dent in the affordability crisis. The work for local governments in San Mateo County is much bigger than simply encouraging homeowners to build a tiny house on their land.
Consider the scale of the problem. The grand jury notes that between 2010 and 2018, the county added 93,000 jobs but only 8,500 housing units. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in San Mateo County was $2,621 a month in 2019 (a number that has surely proven volatile since.) More than two-thirds of the land in the county is protected from development as either agricultural and open space. Two thirds of what remains is already developed as single-family housing.
A few second units here and there will not make an appreciable dent in the housing crisis.
In point of fact, the city of Pacifica is already encouraging second-unit construction through what is known as the Housing Element of its planning doctrine. In addition, the city is part of a test project within the county called “One Stop Shop ADU Pilot Program” that provides technical assistance for some homeowners as they embark on second-unit construction.
Partly as a result, Pacifica city planners have seen an uptick of interest in constructing ADUs. There were nine permitted in 2018 and have been 17 so far in 2020. They say they hear from a homeowner every week who is interested in constructing an ADU. While that may add up over time, consider that a portion of those will be simply rented to tourists through short-term rental apps like Airbnb or used within a family.
Second units help. But the government can do more to make a meaningful difference in housing affordability — through tax incentives, better planning for infill development, entirely new ways of thinking of their own revenue streams — than simply encouraging homeowners one at a time.
Clay Lambert is the editor of the Pacifica Tribune.