Will permitting mother-in-law suites ruin good neighborhoods?
Permitting mother-in-law suites will increase supply, but it also brings more potential problems to neighborhoods that allow it.
There goes the neighborhood. Most homeowners fear what might happen if their neighbors rent out rooms or convert their garages to makeshift apartments. These new tenants in the neighborhood might park cars in front of their house, block their driveway, party all hours of the night, and generally behave like the degenerates and loser renters they were trying to escape when they bought a suburban house.
Neighborhood character matters. If developers were permitted to purchase properties in existing neighborhoods of single-family homes, demolish them, and then put up a factory, it would turn the neighborhood into something other than what the remaining homeowners bought into. In short, it would ruin everything. In order to prevent problems like that from occurring, society passed laws to control land use. One of the purposes of planning and zoning and neighborhood covenants and restrictions is to preserve the character of the community and thereby preserve property values.
Allowing additional residents into a neighborhood isn’t as drastic as permitting a factory to belch black smoke, but when more people move into a community, it creates problems with traffic and parking, infrastructure is strained beyond its design capacity, and it lowers the standard of life for existing residents. If the existing residents don’t benefit in some way, and renting out rooms or converting garages to rental units only benefits a single homeowner at the expense of his neighbors, then the neighbors who pay the price become rightfully upset.
The new Pavilion Park development in Irvine has several floor plans with in-law units with separate exterior doors leading to the street. These were ostensibly designed for extended families, but in the real world, homeowners who overextended themselves to buy in Irvine will rent these units to strangers to help pay the bills. These are ideal rental units because unlike renting out a room in the house, these units have independent kitchens and separate entry ways; the homeowners and the renters never need cross paths.
Even though new residents in Pavilion Park know about these units, I doubt most of them thought through the implications of so many potential rental units in their neighborhood. Since these units don’t come with garages, and since most homeowners won’t want the tenants parking in the driveway and blocking their garage access, most of these renters will park their cars on the street. Guest parking will be hard to come by, and the streetscape will not be very attractive with all those cars. Further, as the homeowners’ teenagers get cars, these will be added to the mix further straining side-street parking capacity.
This issue is not confined to Irvine. The Beach communities have long had serious traffic and parking problems, often because so many accessory units were added over the years. Due to high demand for housing and almost no new supply available to meet this demand, California residents increasingly turn to mother-in-law units to rent out to help pay the mortgage, and they face the problems these new residents bring with them.
Like it or not, more mother-in-law suites are on their way.
It will be easier for California homeowners to build additional small units on their properties whether in their garages or as freestanding second structures under legislation signed Tuesday by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The two bills, from Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) and Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), are designed to ease the state’s affordability crisis by increasing the housing supply. The measures eliminate cities’ ability to require additional parking spaces for units near public transit and limit fees charged to connect to local water and sewer systems among other efforts to make it cheaper and easier to build the secondary units, also known as granny flats.
This addresses the parking issue directly. It’s assumed that renters near transit stops will use public transportation. This may or may not be the case, but if the neighborhood is walkable, and if the streets are already full of cars, renters will do what they must in order to get around.
Further, a mother-in-law suite will not use a tremendous amount of water. Most water used in older residential neighborhoods is put on the lawn. These units don’t add any lawn, and in most cases, they remove some. Charging high fees is merely a mechanism used by cities to discourage mother-in-law suites.
“Removing the most egregious obstacles to building these units will help to increase the supply of affordable housing in California and allow more people to remain in the communities they call home,” Wieckowski said in a release.
I openly admit I’m biased on this issue. I support allowing mother-in-law suites and other rental units in most circumstances, mostly for family reasons. As many of you know, my son is special, and he will likely never live independently. Like any parent, I want him to develop the greatest degree of independence he can, but I also recognize he will always need some help. My son will likely live with us for the rest of his life, which I consider a blessing because he’s a good friend and playmate. As my son gets older, my family will probably seek out a house with an in-law suite to provide my son as much independence as he can handle. Since I want the freedom to live where I chose, I would like to see these in-law suites permitted in more locations.
Granny flats have become a political issue in cities across the state for residents opposed concerned that they conflict with neighborhood character.
In Los Angeles, the units have been in legal limbo since earlier this year when a court ruling found the city was permitting granny flats under state rules despite never repealing its more restrictive city ordinance. Last month, the City Council voted to grandfather in secondary units that were already approved and in the pipeline before the court ruling, but also voted to write new rules to take into account the distinct needs of different neighborhoods.
If a fraction of homeowners in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area decide to build granny flats, it could make a dent in both regions’ housing shortages, experts have said.
This week, the Obama administration also favorably cited granny flats as a way to ease housing prices across the country.
Even if communities wanted to prevent the construction of new mother-in-law suites, this kind of tenancy is difficult to restrict. If someone is letting their aging parent live with them in a true in-law situation, the municipality has no business telling people who they can and can’t live with. The city can regulate the quality of the living space and enforce building codes, but if the homeowner wants to let a family member live there, the municipality is powerless to stop them — and they shouldn’t want to.
Where it becomes gray is when these units are rented out to strangers. People have the right to rent out rooms in their house to strangers, so renting out a garage or accessory unit is difficult to enforce. Staff from the municipality could start going through Craigslist ads and attempt to curb the behavior, but this isn’t the best use of staff time, and it isn’t popular with the many residents who do rent out these units.
In my opinion, the benefits of allowing this additional supply outweighs the drawbacks.