Point of agreement: Second units are a good way to add new housing

A second unit. Image from Decker Bullock.

A second unit. Image from Decker Bullock.

Though the pages of this blog are often critical of the so-called “slow growth” philosophy of development stasis, its activists hold up second units as a solution to our housing crunch. While I won’t go so far as to say it is our only solution, they are certainly part of the mix.

Marin’s housing market is faced with two housing shortages. It is part of the overall shortage of housing in the region – the cause of the troubling spikes in rent in San Francisco, major displacement of the poor in Oakland, and threats to our open space in the far East Bay.

The other shortage is a local lack of small units, namely studios and one-bedrooms, in Marin. This has meant a steady increase in small-unit rents at a faster rate than either wages or the county’s rental market at large.

Second units offer a way to deal with both without dramatically altering the appearance of our neighborhoods. Though regional trends will be a far greater weight on our overall housing costs than new development, it would help solve the problems in our county’s submarket. And, for the region at large, it would allow some housing development to ease North Bay demand.

I say this is a point of agreement with slow growth because, well, they’ve said it often. Frequent TGM commentor Richard Hall certainly thinks so, with comments all over the place about it. Bob Silvestri, too, came out in favor of this strategy in his book (PDF, page 51). The IJ and Patch comments sections are rife with other examples.

My initial concern about allowing this sort of infill development was that it isn’t targeted, but actually that’s just fine. The reasons for the current ban on in-law units are familiar: traffic and parking. Planners feared that allowing second units would cause residents to park on the street (a big no-no in the 1970s) and put undue stress on the big arterial roads like Freitas Parkway and San Marin Drive.

But really, most of Marin’s mid-century sprawl and early 20th Century development is well-suited to the distances traveled by walking and biking. Shopping is typically within a half-mile, as is a bus line. There should be more than enough capacity in our neighborhoods for more small units.

To make this reality, two big changes should happen. First, the state needs to recognize second unit expansion as a viable method to expand affordable housing under its RHNA affordable housing structure. At the moment, it is not.

Second, towns and cities need to allow second units in their residential neighborhoods, preferably targeted in areas that are within walking distance of transit and shopping. Conversion of existing structures should be allowable by right, in other words buildable without more than city staff approval. New construction might go through a planning commission process, perhaps requiring approval from adjacent neighbors.

To really be affordable housing, towns and cities would need to ensure at least some units are built. To do this, they should offer incentive programs to householders who want to build the units. New buildings can be expensive to build well, and incentive programs would ensure these units are of good quality. Just lowering the permit fees could do the trick.

If the county makes it easy for these amateur landlords to take Section 8 vouchers, it would be a major boon to Marin’s affordable housing needs.

Because of the acrimony between the slow growth and smart growth factions in Marin, it’s imperative we embrace the areas where we can work together for a common goal. Second units are the area where we can, and where we must. If Republicans and Democrats can come together for a budget deal in the US House of Representatives, surely we can come together in our living rooms, pubs, and town halls.

And, since the end result would be a greater Marin, that’s something we could all celebrate.


About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

12 Responses to Point of agreement: Second units are a good way to add new housing

  1. Linda Jackson says:

    The State has been an advocate, but like all rule-makers, it’s been behind the curve:
    Cities originally banned second units. State law required them, but with a use permit.
    Cities created difficult use permit processes. State law made 2nd units ministerial, with no use permit required.
    Today, it’s the permit fees that make it so expensive to add a 2nd unit. (LGVSD’s fee is about $15,000, last time I looked!)

    Here’s an advocate who single-handedly is trying to change the rules even more in Marin: [Removed for privacy reasons.]

    Local jurisdictions can claim 2nd units as affordable, based on surveys. See San Rafael’s General Plan appendix B to see the surveys done over the years to prove affordability. The county’s surveys, not surprisingly, found 2nd units in their jurisdiction tended not to be so affordable. (in the country, part of wealthier communities, limited supply, fewer family members renting)

    Happy new year! And a big 2nd unit fan, L

    • Richard Hall says:

      Linda – you might want to be careful sharing someone’s email on a public website (unless you have their permission). This will get picked up by spambots, opponents…

    • I wonder if it would be feasible to structure incentive programs to meet RHNA targets. A certain number of grants would be structured to encourage each affordability bracket, along with an overall overhaul of how localities deal with second units to encourage their construction.

  2. Wasn’t Mr. Hall’s problem with multi-family housing the increase in population and doubling cars on our roads, and lack of resources, like water, and over capacity sanitary district infrastructure?

    How will 2nd Units avoid all these problems. It is safe to assume that 2nd units have the capacity to increase population at a greater rate than priority development areas?

    I guess we can remove all of those concerns from his list of objections to multifamily housing.

    • Richard Hall says:

      @Jimmy. Consider:
      – high density housing places much more acute pressure on an areas parking and traffic infrastructure
      – few buy into Plan Bay Area’s preposterously high population increases, but Wall Street and the developers surely do to help justify their building and financing boom
      – the aesthetics of the architecture are one of the most major issues; second units can much more easily be designed in fitting with Marin (unless you’re advocating Win Cup is so “very Marin”?)

      Without the need to build quite so much housing, and to maintain continued slow growth, a great deal of the acute issues are exacerbated, and second units can accommodate this. Whether high density or second units we still need to be aware of impact on:
      – schools
      – taxes
      – traffic
      – parking
      – water

      Now what’s your position? I am defending second units. Can you stand up for a position instead of continuing to critique? (I have laid out my vision multiple times).

  3. Stephen Nestel says:

    I agree that second units should be part of the overall strategy of housing-but I must point out that all this hyper growth/urbanization is being pushed by large developers, banks and politicians that have little use for the strategy. In fact, it messes with their business model of securing tax credit financing. All being said, I think it is a far more realistic/sound proposition to add rental capacity this way, I just don’t see the politicians/activists/developers lobbying for this solution. Let us not forget that the population statistics/workforce statistics are totally inflated 400-500 of reasonable statistics. Hollywood just got spanked by a judge for similar “lying with numbers” see: http://www.savemarinwood.org/2013/12/a-christmas-present-to-marin-from.html

    • Neil says:

      “I must point out that all this hyper growth/urbanization is being pushed by large developers”

      Stephen, just because you make a statement doesn’t mean it has any bearing on reality. Do you seriously believe this, or are you just being intellectually dishonest?

  4. Richard Hall says:

    @Dave – this is a fantastic post, and one that builds on common ground. There definitely should be some consideration of parking for second units as you mention. However without the major concentrations imposed by the high density approach what’s being proposed here is much more palatable.

    Does it mean that we can achieve the massive growth that developers and Wall Street would like? No, but what Marinites want should trump that.

    The section 8 voucher suggestion is also a good one. Marin Housing is under a financial crunch and this might be a great solution. The fact is that this second unit approach would be much more integrated housing than a 90% subsidized units like Marinwood.

    I really think that this kind of new, positive, thinking coming from common ground can help Marin lead the region with great solutions.

  5. Stephen Nestel says:

    meant to say that population is 400-500% above the Department of Finance estimates of population increase for Marin. It is important that we base planning on realistic estimates not on wishful thinking.

  6. Nathaniel M Hood says:

    Reblogged this on CNU NextGen.

  7. Pingback: Ever wanted to be a patron of the arts? | The Greater Marin

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