Opinion: Measure Q unlikely to generate low-income ADUs (granny flats)

Most ADUs are not rented to low-income tenants. They may be more affordable than larger units but in California, they can’t be counted toward the creation of new low-income housing, a study shows

In her October 17 op-ed urging a “yes” vote on Berkeley’s Measure Q, Debbie Sanderson writes: “Because the rents [in Accessory Dwelling Units, a.k.a. granny flats] are typically low, California now allows cities to count ADUs toward their low-income housing construction requirements.”

It’s true that, since 2003, the state has allowed cities to count ADUs toward low-income housing. But where is the evidence that ADU rents are usually low?

A new study authored by Darrel Ramsey-Musolf, a University of Massachusetts assistant professor of landscape architecture and regional planning, Accessory Dwelling Units as Low-Income Housing: California’s Faustian Bargain, says no such evidence exists.

Published in Urban Science on Sept. 5, the study examined a random sample of 57 low-, moderate- and high-income California cities. The researchers counted 750 potential ADUs as low-income housing. They found that “[even] though 759 were constructed, no units were identified as available low-income housing. In addition, none of the cities’ zoning codes enforced low-income occupancy.”

In summary:

The confluence of a lack of oversight and the unproven efficacy of ADUs as low-income housing means that California has low-income housing units that exist on paper, but not in operation. This is the heart of California’s Faustian Bargain. This compromise was necessary in order to appease cities that were resistant to increasing their low-income housing inventory. Without long-term covenants similar to those found on regulated low-income housing units (e.g., tax-credit, voucher subsidized, or publicly owned), can ADUs serve as actual low-income housing? The answer is no. ADUs may increase local housing inventory and may be more affordable than other market-rate housing types due to the unit’s small size; however, ADUs may not be priced for or available to low-income households. This paper argues that for every count of potential ADUs towards low-income housing needs, a bona fide low-income unit that would have been situated in a regulated multifamily or voucher housing unit was lost.

Berkeley voters should be clear about Measure Q’s effects on ADUs. As Sanderson writes, Measure Q “guarantees owner-occupied single-family properties the rent control exemption homeowner-occupants need to build an ADU with permits,” thereby “remov[ing] one of the most significant obstacles to homeowner construction of ADUs.” Its passage would mean that homeowners, “not the Rent Board, will manage [homeowners’] tenants.” As Mayor Arreguín and other Measure Q supporters argue in the official ballot, “[t]his will allow owners to age in place and increase housing opportunities.”

That’s different from generating low-income housing in our city.

Zelda Bronstein is a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission.