Once maligned, so-called "granny flats" are becoming more attractive to California cities dealing with tight housing markets and overcrowded living conditions.
Santa Ana is the latest to embrace the granny flat; earlier this month, its city council directed staff to rewrite city code to make it easier to have granny flats, and to allow them to be larger. Planners will spend the next six months considering the parking, landscaping, and building regulations involved.
"It really is meant to expand people’s ability to help their families and to reduce the overcrowding under one roof," said Hassan Haghani, executive director of the Santa Ana Planning and Building Agency.
Berkeley city officials relaxed regulations to encourage granny flats in March. Pasadena and Los Angeles have also flirted with the idea of loosening restrictions on such units.
A granny flat is a separate apartment built on the same lot as a larger, single-family house. They have been used to ease rental-housing shortages, but cities, worried about changing the feel of neighborhoods, have been reluctant to increase density.
In 2002, state legislators passed a law to streamline permits for granny flats. In response, cities enacted rules on parking and landscaping to control their growth.
Santa Ana limits second dwellings to 750 square feet or one-third of the size of the lot's main house. At least one parking space per bedroom must be provided. But those restrictions don't necessarily jibe with the realities of how people are living in the city, Haghani said.
In Santa Ana, more than four people live in the average apartment or house, according to census data. That’s more than the statewide average of 2.93 persons per household. Often, crowded households are multigenerational or include extended family members.
Removing rigid rules on granny flats would create more affordable housing options for Santa Ana residents, said Haghani. He imagines "good-sized" granny flats that could house a small family with a bathroom, full kitchen and maybe room for laundry machines.
"We’re proposing a second residential unit where a small family can live," Haghani said.
The economy, coupled with housing shortages, is leading to more interest in architecture that doesn't resemble Southern California's iconic single-family home on a large lot.
The granny flat recently inspired Orange County college students to design and build a competition house for the Solar Decathlon this year with a private but attached second dwelling for the son or daughter returning home after graduation.
Granny flats can open up housing options for people who are already renting individual rooms from single-family homeowners, said Blake Stephens, architecture professor at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.
"We have an awful lot of square footage of unused space in Orange County in the form of single-family homes," he said.
Because lots of granny flats have been built illegally, Haghani said Santa Ana doesn’t have an accurate count of how many there are in the city. But regulating and allowing for more could boost property tax revenues.
A neighborhood not interested in packing in more families could request to be excluded from the updated granny flat ordinance. Details on that are still being worked out.