Once upon a time, California ADU laws could be better understood as restrictions. In many cases, it was often prohibitively difficult for homeowners to build an ADU, even if they had a property that might theoretically qualify to house an ADU.

That’s not the case anymore.

These days, in light of the California housing crisis and an ever-increasing demand for affordable housing, California housing laws are being rewritten to actively encourage construction of ADUs. In fact, several laws went into effect this year to reduce barriers to entry and encourage homeowners to build ADUs for their loved ones.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes to California ADU laws in 2020 and what that means for your construction project.

What are ADUs?

Accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are a type of secondary residence built on the lot of a pre-existing residence. You may have heard of them under any of the following names:

  • Accessory apartment
  • Accessory suite
  • Ancillary unit
  • Backyard apartment
  • Backyard cottage
  • Basement apartment
  • Carriage house
  • Garden cottage
  • Granny flat
  • Home within a home
  • In-law suite
  • Junior accessory dwelling unit (JADU)
  • Laneway house
  • Mother-in-law suite
  • Multigenerational home
  • Secondary unit
  • Sidekick
  • Tiny house

But whatever you call them, ADUs open up a whole new world of housing options for California homeowners and their loved ones.

ADUs come in a few different types, but the basic premise is the same: a secondary suite, smaller than the original unit, which serves as a fully functional secondary living space.

Types of ADUs

There are four types of ADUs:

  1. Detached ADU
  2. Attached ADU
  3. Garage conversion
  4. Interior conversion

Detached ADUs are completely separate from the original unit. They are freestanding and have their own entrance and utility hookups. Someone could live a fully independent life in one of these ADUs if they wished.

An attached ADU is slightly closer to home (literally). It shares one wall with the original unit, though it does not have an interior entrance to the main residence. It may share utility hookups, or it may have its own.

A garage conversion may be attached or detached, depending on your garage. Regardless, a garage conversion refers to a garage structure that has been completely converted into a fully functional independent living space, complete with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living area, and dining area.

Interior conversions are often basement apartments or attic apartments, but they are not to be confused with a spare room. They are fully functional independent living space.

Why Build ADUs?

ADUs have seen a major uptick in California over the last few years. There are several reasons why families opt to build ADUs, but the biggest reason is simple: family.

These days, families are discovering a sad truth: in many cases, it’s not sustainable for an elderly, disabled, or low-income family member to live independently. This could happen for any number of reasons.

Maybe your loved one is older and needs a bit of extra support. Maybe you have a disabled relative who can’t afford housing in the area they need. Maybe you have a boomerang kid freshly returned from college and trying to wade through student loan debt while they figure out what they want to do with their college degree.

In all of those cases, ADUs provide a realistic option for families that want to provide support without being overbearing.

The nice thing about ADUs is that they preserve a significant degree of autonomy for the person living there. They still feel like a member of their own household, even though they also receive the benefit of being part of your household.

From the homeowner side, this also allows families to provide the level of support their loved one needs without the need to completely upend their lives. The sad reality of housing in California is that loved ones may live many hours apart in order to find housing they can afford, and hours of driving distance is unrealistic if your loved one needs daily support.

The Legal Push to Build ADUs

This brings us to the impetus behind the legal push to build ADUs: the California housing crisis.

California is one of the wealthiest states in the country, home to the wildly successful Big Tech industry in Silicon Valley as well as the seat of the American film industry, among other big earners. That’s the problem for far too many families: California’s wealth as a state also makes it the heart of the country’s housing nightmare.

The median price for a home in California now tops $600,000, more than twice the national level, California is home to four of the most expensive residential markets in the country: Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Orange County, and San Diego. Los Angeles is the seventh most expensive market in the country. In the Bay Area alone the median price is closer to $1,000,000.

Worse, California has the highest share of households spending more than 30% of their income on housing. In fact, the state accounts for a quarter of the nation’s homeless population, despite the fact that it only holds about 12% of the population in the entire country.

How did we get here? It’s complicated.

The arrival of Silicon Valley and the subsequent influx of high-earning tech workers didn’t help, though those tech workers are also feeling the crunch of the housing crisis. Income lagging behind soaring home prices is also to blame. Then again, so is poor government and outdated zoning laws.

But at the heart of the issue is the lack of affordable housing.

According to a 2016 estimate by McKinsey & Co., California would need at least 3.5 million new homes by the mid-2020s to meet the demand, and the problem has only gotten worse since that estimate was released.

Meeting California’s Affordable Housing Crisis

Of course, California homeowners aren’t concerned with the ins and outs of laws--they’re concerned about the reality on the ground, and the reality on the ground is that there simply are not enough affordable housing options available to meet the current demand.

Unfortunately, laws are at the heart of how the problem began. Many options that might have helped create more housing for families in need were dead in the water thanks to outdated zoning laws, neighborhood group restrictions, city planning limitations, and other roadblocks.

That said, the affordable housing crisis isn’t going away. And more importantly, you have a loved one who needs somewhere to live--somewhere that won’t leave them out of house and home just because the cost of living is so high.

ADUs are an excellent way to solve the problem because they make use of land that already exists. You don’t have to worry about finding a plot of land when you live in a city, nor do you have to worry about remodeling your entire home to meet the needs of a loved one.

Instead, ADUs offer the best of both worlds. You can create a unit that maximizes the land you already have while still providing exactly what your loved one needs for many years to come. But most of all? You can keep your family close and help each other through these difficult times, whatever challenges life may throw your way.

That’s peace of mind that’s invaluable.

New California ADU Laws

This is why several members of California leadership have turned their eyes (and their re election promises) toward reforming California housing laws.

Historically, many state and local laws prevented California homeowners from being able to build ADUs, even in cases where the property itself would technically qualify. There were also several cost barriers for many homeowners, as well as time delays that made the project prohibitively expensive.

This is why California passed a spate of laws intended to take effect this year. These laws are designed to remove many of the roadblocks that would have previously prevented families from being able to build an ADU, whether that was property restrictions, fees, or a neighborhood group that simply did not want ADUs to be built in the neighborhood.

Here’s a closer look at some of the laws taking effect this year that will significantly improve the building process for homeowners, making ADUs more accessible than ever before for homeowners just like you.

AB 68 (Assembly Member Phil Ting) / AB 881 (Assembly Member Richard Bloom) – Processing Timelines, Ordinance Prohibitions and Triplexes

Assembly Bill 68 and Assembly Bill 881 will have the largest impact on the California housing market. Together, they would render obsolete many of the restrictions cities currently place on ADU construction. They also work hand-in-hand, which is why they’re often examined together.

AB 68, introduced by Assembly Member Ting, and AB 881, introduced by Assembly Member Bloom, requires that local permitting agencies must act on an ADU application within 60 days on a ministerial CEQA exempt basis.

Better still, local authorities are no longer able to impose owner-occupancy restrictions on an ADU--the owner of the property does not have to live in the primary residence to build an ADU on the lot. The owner may now choose to have both units serve as rental properties if they wished, or have relatives use a vacation home as a living space.

The bill also reduces or eliminates many of the existing construction limitations on ADUs.

For example, all ordinances in California must now allow a minimum setback of 4’0” and can no longer use large setbacks to deter homeowners from building ADUs due to restricted lot space. In addition, if an ADU is created in an existing structure like a garage, local ordinances can no longer require replacement parking spaces, granting many homeowners cheaper construction.

ADUs will no longer be subject to minimum or maximum lot sizes based on the percentage of the primary residence either. This significantly reduces the restrictions on ADU size for homeowners who want to construct larger ADUs.

AB 68 further allows for ADUs and junior ADUs to be constructed on lots where certain criteria are met, including access and setbacks. Under the new bill, municipalities will be required to approve the following for single-family homes:

  • One ADU up to 1,200 square feet and one JADU no more than 500 square feet contained entirely within the existing family structure
  • One detached ADU up to 1,200 square feet that is a new construction OR existing structure OR the same footprint as the existing structure, along with one JADU

They will also be required to approve the following for multi-family homes:

  • Multiple ADUs within existing family structures
  • Two detached ADUs on a multifamily lot

This means a lot could have up to three functional living spaces with considerably fewer barriers for homeowners interested in constructing the units.

SB 13 (Sen. Bob Wieckowski) – Owner-Occupancy Prohibitions and Fee Limitations

Senate Bill 13, introduced by Senator Wieckowski, further reduces restrictions previously in place due to owner occupancy restrictions.

Before SB 13, cities and local permitting agencies could require the owner of a primary family residence to live in that residence before they were allowed to construct an ADU on that property. Now, under SB 13, all proposed ADUs are exempt from that requirement until January 1, 2025.

In addition, agencies are no longer able to impose impact fees on ADUs smaller than 750 square feet. Even for ADUs larger than that, the bill requires that local agencies must assess an impact fee which correlates to the square footage of the main residence.

This makes the process much cheaper for families interested in building ADUs. And much like AB 68 and AB 881, it removes significant limitations that might have previously prevented a family from being able to build an ADU to provide a home for a loved one. This alone makes ADUs far more accessible for average families.

AB 587 (Friedman) – Separate Conveyances

Old laws on ADU ownership in California held that the fortunes of the ADU were tied to that of the primary residence. The ADU was not considered a property in its own right, but rather a unit that was part of the primary residence on the lot. It could not be sold separately from the primary residence, and if the primary residence transferred hands, so did the ADU.

Assembly Bill 587, introduced by Assembly Member Friedman, changes those rules to the benefit of homeowners.

Under the new bill, ADUs may be bought or sold separately from the primary residence if certain conditions are met. Furthermore, affordability restrictions are placed on the sale and deed of the ADU ensuring that it remains preserved as affordable housing for low-income families for 45 years.

In addition, under existing tax law, property owned and operated by a nonprofit organization can qualify for a welfare exemption from property taxes, provided that the property is being rehabilitated for sale to low-income families.

The idea is to increase the ability of affordable housing organizations to sell deed-restricted ADUs to low-income homeowners, allowing for shared ownership models that would significantly increase the availability of affordable housing in the state.

AB 670 (Friedman) – HOA Limitations

Assembly Member Friedman also introduced AB 670. This bill reduces or eliminates many of the restrictions that homeowners associations used to be able to place on ADUs. That’s a huge deal for families, since homeowners associations frequently served as a barrier to constructing ADUs even if the property was otherwise qualified for an ADU.

In simple terms, the new law prevents homeowners associations from barring ADUs on principle, which is what many homeowners associations resorted to.

As the bill puts it, it renders null and void any provision of a governing document that effectively prohibits or unreasonably restricts the construction or use of an accessory dwelling unit or junior accessory dwelling unit on a lot zoned for single-family residential use that meets the minimum standards established for those units.

In plain English, a homeowners association, CC&R, or other neighborhood group cannot outright prohibit ADUs. Any deed and document prohibiting ADUs outright is considered null and void. If a lot legally qualifies for an ADU under all other provisions, a neighborhood group cannot prevent an ADU from being built on that lot.

The bill does not eliminate all restrictions on homeowners associations. They can still impose certain limitations, provided that they don’t unreasonably increase the cost of construction for homeowners.

AB 671 (Friedman) – Local Government Assistance

Assembly Bill 671, another bill introduced by Assembly Member Friedman, is more extensive than AB 670--to the benefit of low-income families.

Under the bill, local housing development agencies are required to include a plan that promotes and incentivizes the construction of ADUs for low-income families. Agencies would have to provide a list of existing state grants and incentives to assist with costs associated with planning, construction, and operation of ADUs.

It effectively creates a state-mandated local housing program to incentivize and prioritize the construction of ADUs as an affordable housing option for California families.

SB 1226 (Bates) – Section 17958.12 of the California Health and Safety Code

Permitting is critical to the ADU building process. The state recognizes that some homeowners constructed ADUs on their properties in previous years without obtaining the appropriate permits in order to begin construction. That said, the state also recognizes the value of keeping these housing units available for families and their loved ones.

So, Senate Bill 1226, introduced by Senator Bates, is designed to offer homeowners a chance to get back into compliance with local permitting laws, thus keeping their ADU as a usable property.

The bill adds Section 17958.12 to the California Health and Safety Code. Under this section, building inspectors are now given the option to apply residential building standards that were applicable at the time the unit was constructed, rather than building standards in place today.

This is permissible under the authority granted to building inspectors, in which modifications may be granted on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, the building department has the authority to approve materials, appliances, devices, installation, arrangement, or method if the building authority finds that the design of the unit is satisfactory.

If a building permit does not exist, it is up to the local building authority to determine when the unit was constructed and apply the relevant building code standards that were in place at the time of the unit’s original construction.

California ADU Laws and Your Local Jurisdiction

How do these laws apply in your local jurisdiction?

In most cases, state law will override local jurisdictions. That said, the ways in which state law and local law shake out when factored together can get confusing.

The best place to start is by looking at ADU regulations in your city. Make a note of any restrictions and specific requirements. Then, check the state law to see if state law addresses or overturns any of those requirements.

The best way to approach this is by hiring an ADU builder who specializes in ADUs and understands the changing landscape of California building law. That’s where we can help.

Starting Your ADU Project?

If you’re starting your ADU project, navigating California ADU law changes can often feel like navigating a maze. We have proudly served 20 jurisdictions in California, including San Jose, for over 30 years, specializing in ADU construction as an affordable, accessible housing option.

We know that housing is a challenge for families, but you should never have to settle for anything less than a home that keeps your family together. Our job is to make that home a reality.

If you’d like to talk about your project, click here to speak with an ADU specialist and find out how we can help your family thrive.