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Invasion of the Granny Flat

Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

The Los Angeles Planning Department is in what planner Gabriela Juarez calls an “information-gathering phase” for a proposed city law that would allow auxiliary dwelling units, or “granny flats,” in long-protected neighborhoods and wipe out key rules against parking your car in your yard.

Welcomed by the density hawks but abhorred by others, the emerging plan would directly target the city’s most fiercely protected lands, the single-family home neighborhoods known as R-1 zoning.

Employees of the Planning Department have been hearing, loudly, from L.A. residents. People are alarmed that the proposed new allowances could double the population of some of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods, permitting what are essentially duplexes where single-family homes now exist, a possibility complicated further by infrastructure that cannot adequately handle the population invasion.

But that’s not true, says City Planner Tom Rothmann, who heads the Codes Studies division. “From what we’ve gathered in our studies, I don’t believe that our single-family neighborhoods are going to be deluged.”

Rothmann adds that the Planning Department, run by Planning Director Gail Goldberg, has no particular stake in the outcome.

A cause for skepticism over these remarks arises from two underlying realities: First, the city’s fiscal crisis — a $98 million deficit expected to grow to $400 million next year — stands to get some relief from increased property taxes if Los Angeles County reassesses L.A.’s home values after granny flats have been constructed. These backyard rentals could provide a revenue stream not just to property owners but to the county and city coffers through taxes.

Second is the Planning Department’s controversial backing two years ago of a city law that allowed developers to construct far bigger apartment complexes than allowed by existing zoning.

Goldberg and the Los Angeles City Council, urged on by former Westside Councilman Jack Weiss, among others, insisted that L.A. had no choice but to let developers of apartment complexes ignore local zoning laws, and blamed the rule on a California affordable-housing law called Senate Bill 1818.

That turned out to be spin. Like the granny-flat idea, SB 1818 was ostensibly designed to increase the stock of affordable housing. City Planner Jane Blumenfeld insisted at the time that the effects of the so-called SB 1818 Implementation Ordinance wouldn’t be as dire as its detractors claimed. But a judge disagreed and the ordinance, allowing outsize apartment projects, was largely thrown out of court.

Under the state law, an unknown number of older apartment complexes containing inexpensive — and thus “affordable” — rentals was bulldozed to make way for the bigger, shinier residential towers and high-rises. Then, Los Angeles city politicians crafted its illegal “implementation ordinance,” which was so prodeveloper, and so beyond the scope of the state law, that it backfired, adding further to the loss of inexpensive rentals. Affordable housing was destroyed just as L.A. entered a severe recession and families lost their homes.

Now, Rothmann is trumpeting the same arguments Goldberg and Blumenfeld made two years ago — that a state law is forcing City Hall to act, and that Angelenos need not worry about being overrun.

The development of “affordable housing” is being cited as the underlying justification for this new density-via-granny-flats, and that sounds a whole lot like déjà vu to City Hall watchers.

“Affordable housing” is cited in an official October 20 City Council motion, signed by council members Paul Koretz, Bill Rosendahl and Eric Garcetti, and seconded by Richard Alarcon, asking the Planning Department to conduct a study for creating the granny-flat ordinance and bringing the city into compliance with a 2003 state law.

But, nowhere in the language of the 6-year-old state law, known as Assembly Bill 1866, or in any discussion of L.A.’s ordinance to implement that law, does any wording require that the envisioned new granny flats be rented as “affordable housing” at below-market rates.

The strange thing about Koretz, Rosendahl, Garcetti and Alarcon using “affordable housing” to justify granny flats is that if you drive through Hancock Park and Mid-Wilshire, you’ll find thickets of “for rent” signs on the quiet streets. Market-rate housing is overbuilt. Yet AB 1866 provides incentives to build even more market-rate rentals, not affordable housing, as claimed at City Hall.

Sharon Commins of the Mar Vista Neighborhood Council says it’s incumbent upon the city to tailor the granny-flat rules to “the communities’ needs, with the accessory unit [granny flat] being subordinate to the main unit [home].”

That could be difficult to achieve if L.A. city government, which has been unable to control the proliferation of illegal garage conversions, opens the door to granny flats on previously heavily restricted R-1 home lots citywide, from Los Feliz to Tarzana.

Under state law, homeowners can build granny flats as long as the unit is not intended for sale; the lot is zoned for single- or multifamily use; the lot contains a home; the granny unit is either attached to the house (in which case it cannot exceed 30 percent of that home), or, if detached, is on the same lot; a granny flat does not exceed 1,200 square feet; and city restrictions are followed on height, setback, lot coverage, architectural review, building codes and other neighborhood-preservation constraints.

In the absence of a city ordinance, state law is the rule. But the Planning Department has made the erroneous claim that the City Council is “required” to adopt local rules.

That is wrong. Yet city planners and several council members are using that inaccurate argument to push the required lot size in Los Angeles down from its interim guidelines of 7,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet — the equivalent of a piece of property measuring about 60 feet by 80 feet, which would contain a home and a granny unit.

Goldberg’s staff also plans to suggest that the City Council vote to allow residents of the granny flats to park their cars in what are now side yards and home “setbacks” intended to preserve the greenery and openness of L.A.’s single-family communities.

Currently, the city’s Interim Guidelines require at least 7,500 square feet of land before allowing a granny flat. Pasadena requires a minimum lot size of 15,000 square feet before allowing a granny flat. So L.A., under the emerging vision at City Hall, would allow backyard apartments on land that’s two-thirds smaller than required in Pasadena.

As in the SB 1818 Implementation Ordinance approved by the City Council, backed by Goldberg and signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, which was all but halted by the courts, the Planning Department is opening a door to density far beyond what state law envisions.

Rothmann insists that his desire is to protect neighborhoods. He says he’s considering a “sliding scale” of restrictions to address differing average lot sizes in different areas.

But as other cities are doing, Los Angeles could instead try to resist the effort to increase granny flats. Under the 2003 law, city councils can ban granny flats by finding that they bring substantial “adverse impacts,” which affect the “public welfare” — a phrase that Simon Salinas, former chair of the Assembly Committee on Local Government, writes is the fundamental legal basis for cities’ open-space and other quality-of-life protections.

Juarez insists that under the Planning Department’s vision of state law, “It’s going to be pretty limited as to what you can build if we pass an ordinance. You still have to abide by your setbacks, your parking, the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance. Anything that’s historic will be protected. Anything that’s part of your zoning requirements will still be in force.”

Yet Blumenfeld and Goldberg said much the same about City Hall’s interpretation of SB 1818, which wiped out inexpensive rental apartments and erected much bigger, more expensive apartment towers in their place — before the court stepped in to stop the L.A. City Council and City Planning Department.

Contact the writer at smorris@laweekly.com


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