Whittier City Council Member Henry Bouchot has put his money where his mouth is, building an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in his own backyard with an eye to preventing homelessness. Also known as back houses or granny flats, ADUs are small living spaces separate (attached or detached) from a property’s main house but existing on the same plot of land.
Bouchot’s project is in line with the City’s Homelessness Plan, which promotes ADUs as a gentle densification strategy that crowd-sources affordable housing.
“ADUs are one great tool to have enough affordable housing for everybody while also keeping what many people love about California intact.” he says.
Bouchot says that building a 150-square-foot ADU (the smallest allowable unit) “wasn’t hard at all. It was just a matter of getting multiple bids and getting the best price for the unit. I paid for the design and the permit out of pocket and then I ended up obtaining a home equity line of credit for the construction costs. All told, I was able to do it for about $45,000.”
The tiny unit is gently shoehorned into one side of the property’s garage. Featuring a carbon monoxide shield wall, dedicated water heater, new insulation, central heat and air, crown molding, and high ceilings, the ADU’s interior is snug and matches the vintage exterior of the Craftsman property.
Bouchot has met with Whittier’s First Day in search of a formerly unhoused, case-managed person to occupy the unit. On Monday, he showed the space to the PATH case management team of a potential occupant. Bouchot’s next renter remains TBD, but he is hopeful of finding a great match. “I really hope it’s a veteran,” he said. Bouchot served in the United States Marine Corps.
Showing the space to Sustainable City News, Bouchot pointed out details intended to make 150 square feet cosy and workable: Plenty of kitchen counter space and cabinetry, double bowl kitchen sink, larger-than-mini refrigerator and stove, dining counter, fully tiled bathroom, and a small private backyard. The project has taken a year to complete from start to finish.
Bouchot encourages Whittier homeowners to consider adding an ADU to their property. “If you have some equity in your home, you’re more than capable of building a small unit,” he says. “If you’ve owned your home for a few years, there’s a good chance that you have some equity that you can tap into to create some extra livable square footage in your garage or backyard.”
Whittier Director of Community Development Conal McNamera says that building an ADU is easier than ever for Whittierites. “A law that was enacted a few years back we have enacted into our municipal code,” he said. “With new changes effective January 1, we’re going to be bringing new changes to City Council likely in the next couple months to make sure that our municipal code is compliant with those laws. The new laws basically eliminate requirements for parking, lot size, general development standards, to make it easier to construct ADUs.”
The process for creating an ADU is not as complicated or unattainable as some homeowners may believe it to be. Alexandria Contreras, Regional Organizing Director for California YIMBY explains that it is fairly straightforward three-step process:
“One, you have to draw up your plans which means either hiring a contractor who can do it for you or you can do it yourself,” she says. “The next step would be to go to the city to get your plans approved and make sure that everything’s up to code; that your plans are adhering to the local building codes as well as the statewide codes. Hopefully everything goes smoothly and it doesn’t take too long for the plans to go through, and you get the permit to build. Then, if you’ve already hired a contractor, the contractor starts on it right away.”
Contreras says that “loosening ADU restrictions from a citywide perspective also allows different types of family living that might not be normalized by American standards but might be normalized in other countries. In Mexico, for example, intergenerational living is very common, and loosening restrictions on how to build ADUs would allow families to stay together, build generational wealth, bring in additional income, and take in other members of the family.”
ADUs can serve many purposes. As Bouchot says, “it’s a really functional property to build because you can use it for a family member, as a rental, for guests, or as part of your home if you’d like. Particularly for California housing prices, it’s helpful for people who want to be able to afford a house or for people who are on fixed or limited incomes to be able to afford to stay in their house.”
Contreras reminds those considering building an ADU that “if you’re going to rent out the ADU, there are statewide and local laws that you have to adhere to. It’s going to be more closely regulated by the city. In Whittier, until the recent state laws passed owner occupancy rules, meaning that the owner of the house had to live in the house with the ADU, but now since the state has gotten rid of that, if you’re the homeowner of the ADU, you can rent it out. Under the new state laws, renters and homeowners would both be protected under the Fair Housing Act.”
This provides an opportunity to generate income that could make up for the initial cost and then some. Bouchot predicts that within “five to 10 years” the homeowners could break even and then use the income to support the cost of the house overall.
McNamera warns that ADUs are not necessarily the solution to creating more affordable housing in Whittier. “There’s also no way to guarantee that ADUs are being rented out to actual affordable units versus the market price. I think a lot of folks renting out ADUs would be renting for whatever the market would be and it most certainly would not be affordable rent the way we would be looking at affordable rent through our Affordable Housing Programs. That’s not something that we could control because it’s a private property manner. We wouldn’t be able to go in and say you have to rent it for this or that. We don’t have any rent control programs.”
This hints at a need for rent stabilization at the city and county level.
However, McNamera says that “we can address affordable housing through the mechanisms we’re using right now. We have an affordable homeownership program that we manage through the City. Also, constructing units throughout the city addresses the housing crisis, and I think ADUs in particular, more so than anything else, will try to come to terms with that crisis. It’s obvious that an ADU won’t rent for as much as, say, a one or two bedroom apartment. I think just by nature of being an ADU, it’s going to address that particular segment of the housing need.”
Bouchot reminds Whittierites of the potential this type of unit holds for a city that loves historic buildings: “ADUs are a great tool for meeting demand for housing in away that keeps a city’s neighborhood character intact. There are some potential parking impacts to neighborhoods, but the alternative is large development that has even more overt impact on neighborhoods’ aesthetics.”