Also known as in-law or granny units, companion units are basically secondary residences built behind or alongside existing homes. These units, equipped with their own bathrooms and kitchens, are typically a cheaper form of rental housing as well as an easy income source for homeowners.
These companion units are nothing new for Mountain View, but city officials say their guidelines have clearly made it unrealistic for most homeowners to build them legally. The city's former rules set prohibitive standards for a parcel size for a companion unit, making nearly 90 percent of the city's single-family homes ineligible. Since the city's companion unit rules were first created in the 1980s, city building officials have granted only about 30 permits.
But that's not to say that homeowners haven't been building these units anyway. Assistant Planner Diana Pancholi said city officials are well aware there were households that had constructed unauthorized secondary units in garages and backyards. Exactly how many, she couldn't say. The City Council didn't have much interest in perform a citywide survey to get a count. For now, the city is only enforcing these rules on a complaint basis or when homeowners need city approval for other upgrades.
As part of the new rules, the City Council agreed to no longer mandate the lots be a minimum size in order to build a companion unit. The council also loosened rules on parking requirements for these secondary units, an issue that previously presented some concerns that some neighborhoods could see an excess of cars parking along the street. Earlier rules mandates that new housing units must have one parking spot per bedroom; but the city's new standards only require one space per companion unit.
The issue that generated the most debate for the City Council was the question of development fees, particularly for city park lands. Current rules require anyone building a companion unit to pay park fees based on a complicated formula that considers the housing density and property value. In general, this meant most companion units had to pay between $15,000 and $30,000, which served as a major disincentive, city staff noted.
Council members expressed interest in lowering the fee to encourage new home construction, but they were split on whether to completely write it off. Councilman John McAlister warned that the city shouldn't sacrifice its parks to solve the housing troubles.
"We're trying to develop Mountain View for the long-term," he said. "(If we eliminate this fee) we're going to solve one problem, but we'll make another one worse."
Mayor Pat Showalter pitched an idea to make the fees cheaper for early adopters. What if the first 200 companion units built in Mountain View faced no fees, but then subsequent ones would have to pay a smaller amount, she proposed. The city attorney hastily warned this could verge on a fairness problem, so Showalter dropped the idea. In the end, city officials decided to split the difference and lower the fee by about 80 percent.
Notably absent from the city's discussion Tuesday was any mention of Airbnb or related services. In previous discussions, City Council members expressed concern that loosening companion-unit rules could backfire by encouraging homeowners to use the units as short-term vacation rentals, which could potentially ratchet up local rents.
In their report, staff members noted that trying to craft regulations on Airbnb and its competitors would be a time-intensive process. Other South Bay cities were also exploring this issue, and city staff recommended waiting until later this year when more information is made available.
Even though thousands of homeowners will now be eligible to build new companion units, there are some indications that it won't create a huge surge of new housing. A recent study by the UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation found less than 10 percent of East Bay homeowners didn't build secondary units due to financial or regulatory barriers similar to those addressed by Mountain View's actions. Meanwhile, the East Bay study found that more than 70 percent of the surveyed homeowners simply didn't want or hadn't considered a second household on their property.
Nevertheless, many regional groups, including [email protected] and the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, have singled out companion units as the best short-term fix to address the widening housing imbalance afflicting Silicon Valley.
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