Granny Units to the Rescue

Granny Units to the Rescue

Restrictions have been relaxed on granny units, also known as backyard cottages or accessory dwelling units.

What are you doing with your backyard garage?

In official housing parlance, they’re known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs. But most of us just call them in-laws, granny units, or backyard cottages. Oakland and Berkeley have recently relaxed statutes on building codes for ADUs to facilitate new construction and bring existing illegal ones out of the shadows.

“Since the amendments went into effect, we are tracking the number of, and have seen, a significant increase in, applications,” said Darin Ranelletti, Oakland’s interim director of planning and building. “We’ve had 80 new registrants in the past six months, compared to 16 in the previous six.”

But don’t rush into renovating an aging detached garage, dilapidated shed, or sagging accessory building, or even waste energy on legalizing an existing unit—acts that could create rentable living quarters to help ease East Bay low- and moderate-income housing woes, not to mention raise some income for you or perhaps give you or a relative a chance to age in place—without understanding some basics.

1. You can’t sell it. Property owners must sign and file a Declaration of Restrictions with the county recorder before they can receive a building permit. This restricts any transfer or subdivision of the property, meaning an ADU cannot be sold independently of the main dwelling or from other portions of the property. Additionally, the main dwelling must be owner-occupied for a minimum of three years to add an ADU.

2. Size matters. In addition to verifying allowable minimum and maximum square-footage requirements, property owners must adhere to roof-height restrictions, based on the type of unit. In Berkeley and Oakland, an ADU cannot be smaller than 250 square feet or larger than 750 square feet or 75 percent of the gross square footage of the primary residence—whichever is less.

3. Not in my front yard. Secondary units are now allowed within 4 feet of existing property lines; however, ADUs are not allowed on a property’s front yard.

4. World without cars. If a unit is within a half-mile from a BART station or within a quarter-mile of rapid bus transit, off-street parking may be waived.

5. Owner-occupied privilege. A home with an accessory building will now be considered a duplex and exempt from rent control—if the owner lives at the property for at least two years; if it’s not owner-occupied, the unit is subject to rent control.

Bottom line: check with the local zoning departments for specifics—short-term rental, amnesty for owners of illegal units, traffic impact, for instance—that are still being worked out.

“Mayor Libby Schaaf put together a panel of experts to develop strategies for increasing affordable housing, not only for low-income residents, but for moderate- or middle-income renters as well,” Ranelletti said. “The Housing Cabinet recommends a target of 1,500 units by 2017. This is where these secondary dwellings will be especially useful.”


Published online on Dec. 13, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

Faces of the East Bay