Home & Leisure

New Bay Area housing trend: Living in the backyard

Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Building a granny flat allowed 31-year-old Megan Kellogg to move back to the Richmond neighborhood where she grew up, a move she couldn't otherwise afford. Kellogg, an opera singer, is finishing construction on a 300-square-foot unit in the backyard of her childhood home. When it's complete, Kellogg's mother will move into the unit, and Kellogg, her husband and their 3-year-old son will take her place in the main house.

"The opportunity was just too good to turn down," said Kellogg, who had been living in Washington, D.C. before returning to Richmond. She spent about $88,000 on the project, and now plans to split the mortgage on the main house with her mother. It will be less than her family spent to rent a home on the East Coast.

Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, wants to help more people like Kellogg. A year ago, his first bill eased parking, zoning and lot-size requirements that, he said, were so cumbersome that few homeowners built in-law units -- at least, legally.

His new bill, introduced last week, would force cities to eliminate most of the fees they charge for construction of new in-law units, a shift Fremont made late last year. Such fees, charged for everything from utilities connections to schools, vary widely but can total tens of thousands of dollars and are often blamed for increasing the cost of housing. Many in-law units, the senator said, have been driven underground as a result. Senate Bill 831 also would create a temporary amnesty program for unpermitted in-law units.

"Let's bring these people out of the darkness," Wieckowski said, "and let them have a documented home that they're paying taxes on."

Wieckowski's new legislation is certain to draw opposition from cities and others who see the proposal as a further erosion of local control over land use and planning amid the housing crisis. The measure further eases parking restrictions and requires cities to automatically approve an in-law unit application that has collected dust in a city office for 120 days.

In-law units can be an important tool for cities to address their housing shortages, said Jason Rhine, a lobbyist for the League of California Cities, which opposed Wieckowski's 2016 pro-in-law unit bill. "Where we become concerned," he said, "is when the state is trying to micromanage where and how."


If the state prevents local governments from collecting fees, Rhine asked, how will a city pay for the services those new residents need?

The League urged Gov. Jerry Brown to veto Wieckowski's first in-law unit bill, arguing that easing restrictions could lead to "impaired neighborhood character," increase competition for parking spots, and threaten the privacy of existing homeowners.

For Huang, building an in-law unit to generate additional rental income seemed like a no-brainer. She hopes to put the 600-square-foot unit on the market in March, potentially charging about $2,000 a month. Now she's adding the finishing touches. When it's done, she estimates she will have spent about $100,000 and five months on the project, adding: "It's been a lot easier than I would expect."

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