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State Senate, Berkeley Professors Push In-Law Units as Housing Fix

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State bill might make it easier to build in-laws

Is there middle ground between those who insist that San Francisco needs to build like crazy and those who think the city is dense enough as it is? The answer could be in your own backyard.

That is the bid state senator Bob Wieckowski of Fremont is making with a bill that would make it easier to build accessory dwell units — Wieckowski’s more technical-sounding term for in-law units, granny flats, and other kinds of backyard cottages and extra apartments people add to parcels.

Wieckowski pitches in-laws as a tool to "make better use of our limited space in the Bay Area." Fremont is the fourth most populous city in the Bay Area, and 15th in the state. This couldn't come at a better time.

The bill, SB 1069, kicks away things like extra parking requirements and fees on water and sewer hookups, and shaves 30 days off the maximum time a city can take to process permits for accessory units.

Backers call it a common sense solution. After all, if people who own property in the Bay Area want to squeeze additional housing out of it, why stop them? At the bill’s committee hearing last week, Karen Chapple, a professor of city planning at UC Berkeley who researches in-fill development, testified in favor of it.

"There is a market for accessory units, but it’s blocked," said Chapple. "We’re a diverse state and we need diverse housing types for seniors, for smaller families, for young people."

In the past, Chapple has pitched accessory units as a way to add density to residential neighborhoods because they’re "hidden density" that doesn’t change the visible makeup of a block.

Of course, that’s the very reason some people complain about them. At the committee, some senators raised objections like the safety risk of sneaking more traffic onto residential streets with families, or of creating a potential fire hazard.

Others questioned how much of a dent this kind of building would really make in the problem. The rejoinder: Every little bit helps.

The bill passed and received a green light from the budget committee the same week.

In San Francisco, many in-law units are illegally built, but a few years ago the city adopted a mercy policy that allows landlords to convert them into legal housing sans punishment. The Unit Legalization Counter has been open at the Department of Building Inspection since 2014.