As is well-known, housing prices in the Bay Area of California have become unsustainable; the median home price is $ 3/4 million in San Francisco/Oakland, more in the South Bay. You need a household income of almost $150K to buy that house (which is no kind of mansion), and we are experiencing yuppification/gentrification conflicts and an exodus of the middle class (don’t even ask about blue-collar and service workers) to hour-long commutes away.
One thing that would help a lot is relaxing the traditional hostility of our local planning bodies to owner-occupied rental housing. Last night, the Berkeley City Council started to put our zoning law on a new course, approving (not enacting, yet, but the train is on the tracks) new rules that greatly ease the parking, minimum and maximum unit size, and lot size requirements for these accessory dwelling units (details to be posted at Annotated Agenda for the March 24 meeting here).
Why is this such a good idea? I discuss these “in-law” units in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle (below the jump, if you have trouble with the paywall). It may have been useful, but my wife, Debra Sanderson, who used to be Berkeley’s land use planning manager, was the heroine of this success, doing the real politicking. As we met in MIT’s city planning department, it was especially fun to partner on a project like this again.
Mother-in-law units, the Swiss Army knife of housing policy
San Francisco Chronicle March 20, 2015 (print: March 22 Insights section)
One of California’s great strengths is the repertoire of ideas and practices that our
diverse immigrant population brings from all over. However, some really
good ideas from elsewhere have trouble taking root here and, as an East Coast
import, I have been especially puzzled that owner-occupied rental housing, a
pattern that has worked so well there, is an object of suspicion and even hostility
I know of no neighborhood pattern that does so many useful things around the
city as owner-occupied rental housing. San Francisco took a couple of tentative
steps in the right direction last year, and on March 24 the Berkeley City Council will consider new rules for “accessory dwelling units”
(or mother-in-law apartments), so perhaps the practice will thrive and spread. It should.
When you rent out a small unit in your house, or a cottage in your backyard, a number of nice
things happen. You have someone to feed the cat when you go skiing, or turn off the stove
when you forget and go out, and there’s an eye on your home most of the time. The tenants
Mother-in-law units, the Swiss Army knife of housing policy are not going to be jerks or abusive, and
neither are you going to leave a broken toilet unattended or gouge them on the
rent. Empty nesters, trapped in too much house by Proposition 13 tax rules, can
afford to stay in it many more years, maybe even renting the unit to a caregiver
when they need some help. Or your yo-yo kids can have a landing spot, and you can
hang with the grandchildren without having them completely underfoot. If
you’re a young professional couple starting out, you can afford a bigger house (just take over
the rental unit for a couple of decades) when you have kids without having to move; as
tenants, you can start out in a neighborhood you can stay in when you need more space.
The most important benefits of owner-occupied rental housing, however, are broader than the
owners’ and tenants’ convenience. Obviously, one is simply providing more, and more
affordable, housing and increasing density, with all the advantages (walkable neighborhoods,
better transit, less climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions) it brings. Neighborhoods of
this type are stable because they have a mix of ages and incomes. There is less turnover
because the housing can adapt to owners’ changing needs while they stay put.
My parents bought a New York brownstone row house in 1946 and rented out the bottom two
floors, so I grew up in a house and neighborhood we couldn’t have afforded otherwise. We
got to know an interesting sequence of tenants, including Lena Horne and the premier
architectural photographer of the time. In Boston, the corresponding housing type is 10-room
Victorians originally built for families with servants, cut up into a large unit and one or two
small ones. There are also, famously, the “three-deckers,” flat-roofed, three-unit, walk-ups
with a small yard, separated by a driveway. They were originally built by the tens of
thousands as rental apartments for blue-collar workers, and as tenants bought, adapted and
remodeled them, they have served well for more than a century. I was a tenant in a threedecker
and, later, when we bought a big old Brookline Victorian, we had an apartment on the
third floor for my aging mother, and another over a separate garage: That one housed an au
pair couple while our kids were young, and graduate students later on. Almost all my friends
lived in variations of these arrangements, and we thought it completely natural and practical.
The Bay Area is suffocating from a really desperate shortage of middle-class housing and the
wasteful commuter-traffic nightmare such a shortage generates — mother-in-law units would
address all of this. High housing prices are nice (for a while) for those lucky enough to
already own, but it’s really toxic when teachers, firefighters and the guys who fix the streets
can’t live anywhere near where they work. Most of these middle-income workers are forced
to find housing in the far-flung suburbs, and suffer hour-plus-long commutes. Anyone in New
York or Boston — prosperous cities with very healthy property values — would see resistance
to owner-occupied rental housing as one more inexplicable California eccentricity, like our
prickly attitude toward public transit.
Maybe my Bay Area neighbors are afraid — What will renters do to housing values? — in the
same way my Southern California undergraduate students are afraid to go East for graduate
school: never having experienced a New England winter in boots and a down parka, they
subconsciously imagine themselves navigating Harvard Square in January in a tank top and
flip-flops. This chills any idea of seeking an educational experience that might serve them
Try it, neighbors: There are already more and more illegal accessory dwelling units slipping
under the radar of building codes and stiffing our community of property tax and income tax
on rental income. The market is trying to tell us something: Owner-occupied rental housing
deserves to come out in the California sunshine.