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The 5 things you should know about 'granny flats,' a possible solution to the housing crunch

Homes in Los Angeles.
Homes in Los Angeles.
Via Flickr user Kansas Sebastian

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The housing shortage in Los Angeles is at the forefront of issues the city struggles with. But among the many solutions proposed, there may be one right in our own backyards.

In January, the state passed legislation aimed at making it easier to create Granny flats...also known as secondary units. You know a little studio, or maybe a garage that can be converted into a separate living space right on the grounds of your property? 

The idea is: by making the creation of these units easier, housing will increase and rent will decrease. And now, some cities are scrambling to adjust their own guidelines to fall in line with the statewide legislation.

Case in point: Pasadena's city council meeting earlier this week was dominated by discussion and updates regarding how they handle so-called granny flats.

So what's the latest happening on this front?

Josie Huang is KPCC's housing reporter, she's joined A Martinez for an update. Here are five key things to know:

1. There are new laws that want to make it easier.

"So the point of these new laws was just to make it easier for people to build these granny flats. One way the law's tried to do this is by restricting the hook-up fees that owners would be charged to connect the backyard home to water and sewer for example. The laws also say if you live near public transit, you don't have to put in extra parking which was what some of the cities were saying that you had to do if you wanted to build a backyard home.

So, the net effect of these policies is just less cost and less headache for the person who wants to build it."

2. The flats aren't welcomed by all.

"For something that sounds so benign, 'granny flats,' so harmless, they just bring up a lot of emotions in people because...actually in L.A. they're quite popular. There are actually tens of thousands of backyard homes estimated to be out there but they're not the record...

So, folks are of the mind, 'if it's my property then I should be able to build what I want there,' but then you've got the neighbors who are worried that without adding more parking to these backyard homes, that it'll make the streets more congested and then traffic's going to get worse. And there's also this thing with aesthetics because even though they're in the backyard sometimes you can see them from the street. Especially if you're building on a slight slope and unless you've got tall fences, your next door neighbors are going to be able to see your backyard home."

3. If you have a flat but no permit, it may be the time to go legit.

"Well, the new laws they don't give amnesty to unpermitted units so, folks in this situation have a few options. They can continue without a permit like they have been and then you run the risk of getting in trouble or getting turned in by a neighbor or you can be proactive and get your unit on the books and the good news now is that going legit is way easier to do under the new state law if you meet certain criteria, this is at least what I'm hearing from Matt Glesne who's a city planner for L.A. and according to him if you're unit meets a short list of requirements it doesn't have to meet the kind of zoning requirements that new units would have to meet.

So, let's say you have an existing garage that you converted into a second unit. As long as it has it's own entrance and meets certain safety standards, you should be good."

4. No Airbnb restrictions...yet.

"At this point, I haven't heard of any restrictions on renting it out on the short term rental market, though I should say the crafters of the state law definitely intended for these backyard homes to go on the long-term rental market. Whether they could be rented out on Airbnb I think would depend on each city, because, some cities like Santa Monica are saying that you can only rent out units on Airbnb or VRBO if you also live on the premises. The idea is to prevent investor types from buying out large swaths of apartments in multi-family buildings and creating so-called rogue hotels. 

But I think with granny flats you already have someone living at the main house so, it shouldn't be a problem..."

5. Is this the best solution? Some think so.

"Certainly the lawmakers up in Sacramento think so. Even if a small minority of homeowners putting granny flats, that could go a long way towards creating more housing. There's already tens of thousands of backyard homes in L.A. before the state law passed, most of them illegal. If the state law does what it's intended to do, which is to encourage building of these seconds homes, then imagine how many more tens of thousands of units could potentially come online. It's really particularly hard to build new homes in L.A. because of land costs all the regulations, neighborhood opposition...

Case in point, last year, L.A. built under 17,000 units. But with granny flats, you don't have to make land purchases because the homeowner has the land. So, that gets taken out of the equation. But I should say there's no guarantee that these second homes will be affordably priced. The hope is that by adding them to the mix, to the overall housing stock, that granny flats can help bring down prices overall." 

To listen to the full segment, click the blue play button above.