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The Cost of
Granny Units
by Will U. Lemeno
April 2004

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Staying in the Family Home
May Mean Taking Others In

October 12, 2003
By MOTOKO RICH - New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO - Dwight and Purisima Culdice view their garage as more than a repository for two cars, a treadmill, two desks, empty suitcases and countless piles of paper. They hope it will be their financial future.

The Culdices, who live in a single- family home on a street of detached houses, want to transform part of their large garage into a studio apartment. They have set aside $38,000 to build it and figure they could rent it for $750 a month, offsetting half their mortgage payment.

For a growing number of people, the all-American ideal of a family home - a house with a yard and a garage - now involves sharing it with a stranger.

Like many communities around the country, San Francisco largely prohibits building a separate apartment - commonly known as a granny flat - on the lot of a single-family home. But that could soon change. A bill is pending before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that would legalize new granny flats. Indications are that members are evenly split on the issue.

Many other cities have already loosened restrictions that prohibit the apartments. Some 65,000 to 300,000 granny flats are springing up in cities and suburbs every year, with or without local sanction, according to a study sponsored by AARP. Self-contained, with private entrances, kitchens and baths, they can be built into a garage or tucked into a basement, or they can stand as a cottage in the backyard.

Proponents argue that granny flats are relatively inexpensive solutions for homeowners who need help with their mortgages, while offering affordable housing to people desperate for it. They can also provide housing for aging relatives who want to retain their independence while living close to a family member.

But opponents see such add-on apartments as an assault on neighborhoods designed around the "Leave It to Beaver" ideal.

"In some ways we're dealing with the sacred character of the single-family house," said Robert Fishman, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

In San Francisco, where officials estimate that about 20,000 illegal apartments are harbored within houses, a rapid acceleration in prices has made houses with rental apartments more attractive.

But like many San Francisco residents, Bruce Selby, 77, a retired public relations executive who has lived for 33 years in a single-family enclave in the southwest part of the city, said add-on apartments were "totally inappropriate for a pleasant residential district."

His wife, Shirley Selby, 71, a retired financial adviser, said, "There's no sense of community when you have people who are in and out of apartments."

It is a debate heating up across the country. In Ann Arbor, Mich., neighbors killed a proposal last year to simplify the permit process for new granny flats.

Mount Pleasant, N.Y., recently prohibited apartments on the second floor of single-family houses and in houses that rely on septic tanks and wells - about a quarter of all houses in the town.

"We didn't move to the suburbs so we could live in the city," said Suzi Cassone, 63, a library clerk. Ms. Cassone said that an illegal apartment in her neighbor's house had created noise problems and more competition for parking.

Homeowners also fear that by adding rental units, neighbors will bring in students, young professionals on the move or others who will be less invested in the community than the typical homeowner.

"I think there is also an undercurrent of fear that these units will attract people who are undesirable for the community," said Aaron Peskin, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who proposed the law that would legalize new granny flats.

Granny flats were once an American tradition. In some urban neighborhoods of the late 19th and early 20th century, architects included two or three units in town houses to accommodate extended families. Wealthy families in rural communities built separate apartments in their homes or backyard carriage houses for their help.

But by the 1950's, the prevailing ideal in many suburbs was not mixed housing but the single-family home. Most communities created zoning barriers to added apartments or outlawed them altogether.

Illegal units still flourish in places like Queens. A recent study by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit research group, estimated that homeowners created about 42,000 illegal units in Queens from 1990 to 2000. City regulators do not actively seek out illegal apartments, though they do investigate complaints from neighbors.

San Francisco has taken an approach of "benign neglect" and rarely forces homeowners to strip illegal units, Amit Ghosh, the city's chief of comprehensive planning, said.

In the city's Mission district, where shabby Victorian houses stand cheek by jowl with 1930's squat stucco houses, evidence of added-on apartments is everywhere.

On one block, virtually every house sports extra mailboxes and house numbers, as well as doors carved into garages or side gates.

"We need to find creative ways to make it affordable to own a house here," said Kate White, the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, a nonprofit group. "For a lot of people, it would make or break the difference if they could have a rental income."

Some cities are pressing ahead with policies encouraging homeowners to build more granny flats.

This spring, Lewisboro, N.Y., allowed homeowners on lots of at least a half-acre to build new stand-alone structures. The town also raised the number of people who could live in them to four people with no age restrictions, from two adults and one child under the age of 5.

"We have a need for affordable housing for both young people who have grown up in town and would like to move back, and for senior citizens who can't afford to pay the taxes and want to stay in town," said Tom Herzog, the Lewisboro supervisor.

Mr. Herzog, 68, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the house he grew up in, said he and his wife could not afford to stay if not for the apartment behind his house that he rents to a man and his son.

Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke," warned that counting on the income from granny flats might actually weaken a family's financial position.

"The vulnerability of the family has just gone up," Professor Warren said, "because if one of those incomes disappears, the family could be in danger of losing the home altogether."

In July, a new law went into effect in California ordering all communities to streamline the process for obtaining permits to build apartments in homes. As a result, Cathy and Shawn Murphy of Santa Cruz are building a 640-square-foot cottage behind their two-bedroom home.

Ms. Murphy, 41, said her 68-year-old mother, who walks with a cane, would move into the new unit. Granny flats, she said, "give families options of adapting as families grow and change."

In San Francisco, the debate over whether to authorize more second units has raged for more than 20 years. With 777,000 people living within a 47-square-mile area, the city is one of the densest in America, according to Census Department figures.

Yet it has managed to maintain a number of single-family neighborhoods with manicured front yards, big garages and a distinctly suburban feel.

"What I grew up with is children out in the street playing ball, soccer moms in their vans picking up kids," said Karen Niglio, a 32-year-old legal consultant who was raised in the Sunset district. "I don't want to raise my children in a place where we have revolving doors."

Purisima Culdice, 43, who works as an office manager and home health care worker, said residents who objected to second units were unfair to homeowners who might genuinely need the income.

"Maybe when they bought their houses 20 or 30 years ago, their house was inexpensive and their mortgage was a lot cheaper," Mrs. Culdice said. Opponents of the new bill, she said, "should be more understanding."


Copyright 2004