ADUs: Strategic Solution to California’s Housing Shortage  

ADUs: Strategic Solution to California’s Housing Shortage

Recent California laws enacted in 2023 and 2024, make it easier for homeowners to obtain permits for building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their lots. An ADU is an additional residential structure built on the same lot as a primary structure. These new California laws were enacted to increase the housing supply across the state, which, by doing so, significantly amends California state laws in favor of homeowners who want to build ADUs on their properties.  The new laws have an astounding impact on the changes to housing infrastructures. Below is a breakdown of the changes to the process of approving an ADU, the location of where an ADU may be constructed, the allowable size of an ADU, and the occupancy and ownership rights that homeowners now have in relation to their ADU.

The Process
Historically, when a building plan for a structure is being approved by a local agency, subjective measures will be used to determine whether the size and style fit into the overall aesthetic of a given area. That no longer is the case for ADUs. The recently passed ADU laws require that local agencies only follow objective standards when reviewing an ADU application, and the laws prohibit following any “standard that involves personal or subjective judgment.” Such objective standards may include, but are not limited to, the ADU’s size, height, and safety. But it does not stop there. If an ADU application is denied for being in non-compliance with an objective standard, the homeowner is entitled to receive a full and extensive set of comments with a list of items that are defective and how those defects can be remediated. Surprisingly these laws supersede an Association’s governing documents that may contain contrary or prohibitive language.

The Location
An ADU may be attached to, or detached from, a primary dwelling. The recent laws now permit an ADU that is detached from a primary dwelling to be constructed in a garage. Further, a lot’s front yard setback can no longer be used to prohibit construction of an ADU, if there is no other alternative to allow for construction of an eight hundred (800) square feet ADU that meets height limits, provided it complies with a four-foot side and rear setback.

The Size
There are also now revised height limits for ADUs. An ADU can now be built as high as eighteen (18) feet, if it is detached from a primary dwelling and on a lot within one-half mile walking distance of a major transit stop or on a lot with an existing or proposed multi-family dwelling. However, if an ADU is attached to a primary dwelling, it can now be built as high as twenty-five (25) feet. This means that ADUs can now be built as tall structures, and potentially as a two-story structure.

Occupancy and Ownership
In a continued effort to relieve the housing shortage in California, local agencies are no longer allowed to impose owner-occupancy requirements on new or converted ADU projects.
However, the buck does not stop there. Local agencies in California are also now authorized to adopt ordinances that would allow homeowners to sell an ADU on their property as a condominium, separate and apart from their primary dwelling.

What does this mean for associations? It means that it will be difficult for associations and local agencies to stop homeowners from building ADUs on their lots, unless there is a good objective reason to do so. It also means that if an association denies a homeowner’s plan to build a non-ADU additional structure on their lot, savvy homeowners can then convert their plan to add an ADU to attempt to obtain approval, literally through the back door of this legislation. Once an ADU is built on a lot, the owner may be able to sell their ADU as a condominium and separate from their primary dwelling, if their local agency adopts an ordinance to permit such action. Of course, this opens up many questions about whether the owner of the ADU would have rights in the community for amenities.

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