Zoning Reform Is Helping This City Avoid The Housing Crisis

By U Cast Studios
May 22, 2024

Zoning Reform Is Helping This City Avoid The Housing Crisis
Image Courtesy Of Tierra Mallorca On Unsplash

California has a housing problem. A city in Mendocino County is figuring out how to solve it.

This article was written by Asia Mieleszko and originally published by Strong Towns.

In 2017, California state law SB 1069 fertilized the ground for the production of Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs. In short, the law allowed for the construction of secondary units on residential lots designated single-family and multifamily, by right. As a result, the production of in-law suites, casitas, garage apartments and granny flats exploded across the state. This is especially notable in Los Angeles, where ADUs constituted over 20% of all new housing units permitted in 2023.

Further north in Mendocino County, a city of just under 17,000 has also been taking advantage of the state’s legal framework. In the last six years, Ukiah has embraced garage and pool house conversions, which have largely been made possible by SB 1069, according to Jesse Davis, Ukiah’s chief planning manager.

However, that law didn’t necessarily make it easy for homeowners to design and construct a detached dwelling on a property that could easily support that next increment. Unlike converting a garage into a bedroom suite, producing a detached dwelling involves hiring an engineer to design everything up to code and then applying for the requisite permits from the city to finally begin construction. The process is neither cheap nor swift, and ADU champions could easily see that it would deter homeowners from even bothering. Davis is hoping the city’s latest move will change that.

In 2021, Ukiah released three pre-approved ADU designs that effectively bypass the lengthy permitting process at no cost to the community. The three styles and sizes include a one-bedroom/one-bathroom cottage measuring 534 square feet, a clerestory splitting its 748 square feet between two bedrooms and one bathroom, and an 832-square-foot, two-bedroom/one-bathroom bungalow.

Ukiah’s pre-approved ADU designs.

In addition to minimizing costs and headaches for homeowners, releasing these designs has freed up valuable time for city staff. “We’ve actually been able to approve ADUs in less than a day,” Davis described. “It’s a matter of taking a site plan and a pre-approved plan set and saying, ‘go for it: permit issued.’” Because the plans meet all the standards required by California state law, staff can focus their talents on the “bigger picture,” as Davis put it, rather than scrutinizing the minutiae of highly specific and arguably overcomplicated code. Davis refers to this as reducing the “information cost.”

“Staff would spend a lot of time navigating these sorts of gray issues when in the end, we all just want to arrive at the same thing: affordable housing, well-built housing, and transportation that works (whether it’s automobile, bicycle, or pedestrian). Those goals shouldn’t get lost in the minutiae of inscrutable code,” he explained. “There’s a conversation to be had about what’s the best and highest use of our staff time.”

When asked why ADUs have been so readily embraced in a city some may associate with resistance to change, Davis points to Ukiah’s beloved older neighborhoods that set the precedent for “gentle density” with their cottage courts and townhomes. “ADUs also allow us to address a lot of our state and local needs in terms of creating dwellings that can meet a greater diversity of income thresholds,” he adds. “And it does so by taking advantage of existing infrastructure.”

It’s Not Just About Saying Yes to ADUs

Cities across the country have been welcoming ADU construction, but as Daniel Herriges noted in his piece, “If You’re Going to Allow ADUs, Don’t Make It So Hard to Build One,” the same places that allow them on paper aren’t making it straightforward to build them.

Raleigh, North Carolina, is a great example of this, he writes. The Raleigh News-Observer’s Anna Johnson explains, “The recommended rules outline a special district that would allow backyard cottages, but only after a resident applies for it and a majority of 10 acres worth of the applicant’s neighbors agree to the district.” The rules would also impose regulations on aspects of the cottages like size, usage, parking availability and number of residents.

Other cities that try to bolster ADU construction often end up strengthening (or, at the very least, not loosening) existing restrictions like minimum lot size requirements, parking mandates, or narrow design and affordability margins that the ADU must meet, Herriges explains. In effect, despite signing into law an embrace of the granny flat, the city makes it nearly impossible to build one. That’s why Ukiah has begun looking at other aspects of its zoning code, like parking mandates.

“We haven’t been as bold, I think, as some other jurisdictions, but I think we’re finding ways to reduce it incrementally in ways that I think our council and our city finds digestible and appropriate,” Davis explains. In doing so, he’s also been able to demonstrate how and where mandates are entirely inappropriate.

“We don’t need cars in all sectors of life,” he explains. For example, housing complexes designated for senior citizens or those with special needs already commonly receive parking exemptions because their populations simply won’t be using vehicles. It’s a key example Davis draws upon when championing the ability to tailor parking to an environment’s needs.

In some cases, the mandates are not only inappropriate, they’re absurd. Davis recalls the struggles of an indoor mini-golf facility that learned it was liable to produce three parking spaces per hole, as the code instructs. “It was one of those few parking standards that we became aware of that was like…you can’t be serious,” he laughed. “Who thought this up?”

That segment of the code specified that “pitch and putt and miniature golf courses must produce three parking spaces per hole plus the spaces required for accessory uses on the site.” Pools and barber shops are similarly governed by arbitrary math. The code requires one space per 100 square feet of water surface for the former, and “two spaces for each barber chair or three for each beautician station” for the latter.

Finally, where exemptions and variances have been granted, Davis can point to examples where the consequences that opponents feared and that the code was supposed to prevent failed to materialize. Residents and patrons of newer developments situated within walking and biking distance of amenities are choosing to walk, bike and carpool. That in turn helped justify and streamline parking reductions for other developments.

And, in the case of the indoor mini-golf course, working out a shared parking agreement enabled the business to remain without adding more parking to a strip mall that already had abundant (and even underutilized) parking. “There’s also a difference in time to consider,” Davis added. “The other occupants include a bank and a pharmacy, which receive traffic at different times of day than a mini-golf place.”

In this situation, it was apparent that the rules would not work in anyone’s favor. “We’re not going to require an occupant to expand the parking within an existing undeveloped facility,” he said. “It was a point of conversation, though, and it called into question what these mandates are even doing. And I can laugh about it today because, you know, where did this even come from?

This summer, Ukiah will review all its residential zoning codes and reduce requirements where precedent and appetite exist. In the process, the city will continue updating how businesses, developers and homeowners can easily apply for exemptions — for instance, by providing a simple bike parking facility

“We’re trying to reduce the impacts related to parking,” Davis pointed out. “… Luckily, we’re increasingly finding more projects to point to and say, ‘look, we’ve developed something like the 72-unit Acorn Valley Plaza and we’re not seeing those, you know, impacts everyone feared’ …. We don’t need to cede a lot of land to asphalt.”

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