A Backyard Revolution is Sweeping the West Coast
By Supervisor Warren Slocum
Our Menlo Oaks neighbor, Surinder, is one of many West Coast homeowners to take the Bay Area’s housing challenge into her own hands by creating an opportunity in her own back yard. Surinder, owner of design firm SKD Design, knew that a well-crafted second unit home could fit into the space then occupied by a garden and generate the income she and her husband sought. Now, she gazes out on a beautiful contemporary two-bedroom, two-bath unit that blends easily with the surroundings. They had no problem renting the unit, and today have both wonderful tenants and a new source of income.
Surinder and her husband are following the lead of cities like Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles who are heading up the backyard revolution happening up and down the West Coast. Second Units go by many names – accessory dwelling unit (ADU), backyard cottage, granny flat, or in-law unit. They are laneway houses in Vancouver where 35 percent of single-family homes have them. No matter the name, the definition is the same: they sit on the same lot as a single-family home and must have a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping area. They can be created within an existing home or can be detached. In the last few years, homeowners in Seattle and Portland have embraced second units, building them at an increasing rate. Last year, Los Angeles added 2,000.
Now, it’s our chance to join the revolution.
In San Mateo County, 75 percent of the land is set aside for open space and agriculture. Of our developed land, 66 percent is developed with single-family homes. This means second units are a great way to create housing in single-family neighborhoods, without changing their character. They are less costly to build than any other form of housing. Due to their small size, they are also energy efficient and naturally affordable – renting for less than a comparable apartment while still bringing a good income to the owner.
Because of these benefits, Home for All — the countywide collaborative addressing our housing challenges — has focused on creating tools that support homeowners wanting to build second units. To make finding these tools even easier for interested homeowners throughout the county, Home for All just launched a one-stop Second Unit Center website at www.secondunitcentersmc.org. The website and its tools were developed specifically for our county, drawing on best practices form other parts of the country, informed by focus groups and surveys from our county’s residents, designers and builders.
There is an idea book with photos of beautiful San Mateo County second units and inspirational stories of the people who built them, including Surinder. Posted resources help demystify the process —from design, to working with the County or a specific city/ town on permitting, all the way through construction. An online calculator even helps users think through costs and pencil out a rough estimate of price tag, income, and return on investment. Finally, we included the first section of a workbook that is under development that will guide homeowners through their own project.
We hope this the Second Unit Center is a valuable tool for our community. Please give it a try and see what you think. You might be inspired to be part of a backyard revolution here, in our own community.