Ventura County is famous for saying “not in my backyard” when it comes to building housing, but the fastest-growing type of new housing in the county is literally being built in residents’ backyards.
Fully permitted accessory dwelling units — also known as ADUs or granny flats — were nearly unheard of a few years ago, with most of Ventura County’s cities issuing zero or near-zero ADU permits in 2016 and 2017.
Since 2019, local governments in the county have approved more than 1,100 such units for construction, including more than 400 in 2022 alone, according to data kept by the California Department of Housing and Community Development and figures supplied to the Star from Ventura County’s cities.
Countywide, about 11% of new housing units approved between 2018 and 2021 were ADUs, according to the state data. In some parts of the county, most new homes are now ADUs: Ojai permitted 65 new residential units between 2018 and 2021, and 62 of them were ADUs. In Port Hueneme, nine of the 15 residential building permits issued in those four years were for ADUs.
The primary driver of the ADU boom is the California Legislature, which passed a series of laws between 2017 and 2022 to make it easier for property owners to build backyard granny flats or convert garages or other structures into housing. Until 2017, cities and counties were largely free to set their own ADU rules, and many of them made permits difficult or impossible to obtain. The process is now faster by months or even years in some cities, and the permit fees are cheaper by thousands of dollars.
“I think the ADU law is absolutely working. It’s been a success story on a number of levels,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat who has authored a number of bills meant to increase the supply of housing. “It took four or five different bills, but eventually we closed all the loopholes. That law is so strong right now, and cities have largely accepted it. … People can see that it’s possible and doable, whether they’re going to rent it out or their elderly parents are going to move in.”
Under the new state laws, almost any residential property can have an ADU, regardless of the size of the lot. The state code allows ADUs of up to 1,200 square feet, though cities and counties can limit them to 800 square feet for one bedroom and 1,000 square feet for two bedrooms. Sacramento has also put limits on the fees local authorities can charge and the time they can take to process applications, and cities can’t usually require a homeowner adding an ADU to add parking for the new unit.
“I think this is something that’s going to continue to increase,” said Jonathan Wood, a permit services and enforcement manager with the city of Ventura. “Word is still getting out, and we’re still getting a lot of phone calls and a lot of questions about ADUs.”
Ventura issued building permits for 62 ADUs in 2022, more than three times as many as in any previous year. Before the raft of state laws streamlining the process, the city issued nearly zero: two permits in 2016 and one in 2015.
Other cities show similar trends: Oxnard permitted 69 ADUs in 2022, after allowing zero from 2015 to 2017 and four in 2018. Simi Valley issued 72 ADU permits in 2022, three times as many as in 2021.
‘Naturally affordable housing’
ADUs are often used as homes for family members, like the grandparents envisioned in the old “granny flat” nickname. But according to data kept by the state, renters occupy about 75% of ADUs in Ventura County and about 87% of the units statewide. Most are permanent residents; one of the restrictions cities can still place on ADUs is banning them as short-term vacation rentals.
Most ADUs are market-rate rentals, which means there aren’t any limits on what landlords can charge in rent. But ADUs typically rent for less than units in new apartment buildings, and housing advocates and experts say they can be part of the solution to the state’s shortage of housing. ADUs have also attracted less neighborhood opposition than most other types of rental housing.
“Of course, ADUs are not going to be enough to solve the overall problem, but they are definitely one of the pillars to solve the problem,” Wiener said. “The fact that you have more and more cities embracing them speaks volumes about the changes in attitudes toward housing and the politics of housing.”
The ADU laws have had big impacts in cities like Ojai, Wiener said, where it’s historically been difficult to get a permit to build any type of residential unit. The new state rules establish one type of housing that a city can’t say no to.
“There are cities that five or 10 years ago were saying, ‘Hell, no’ to ADUs, and now they’re saying, ‘Don’t make us build anything other than ADUs. We’ll build as many ADUs as you want,’” Wiener said.
Dawn Dyer, the president of the Ventura real estate consultant Dyer Sheehan Group, said the key to the relative affordability of ADUs is the cost to build them. A freestanding backyard granny flat might cost $250,000 to build, while even subsidized affordable housing often costs twice that much per unit. A garage conversion ADU could cost $50,000 or less and result in a one-bedroom rental unit, which Dyer said is about the price of each parking space in a new apartment building with an underground garage.
“ADUs are very affordable to construct, so that makes it what I like to call naturally affordable housing,” Dyer said. “It’s not affordable by mandate, but it’s naturally occurring affordable housing because it’s one of the cheapest types to build.”
A new industry
In Santa Paula, Adolfo Zavala converted the detached garage of his family’s home to an ADU in 2020 and has been renting it out ever since. The entire project took about six months, including design, permitting and construction, and cost around $30,000, using a firm that specializes in designing and building ADUs. His tenant pays $1,600 per month for the resulting 500-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment.
“It’s been a great experience for me,” Zavala said. “I got a great tenant, I got extra income, and it added to our property value. … With everything being so expensive now, it’s great to have a little cushion, a little extra income.”
Zavala paid for the work with savings, but many homeowners pay for an ADU through a home equity loan or other financing. There are also government loans and grants available at the state and local levels, some of which come with requirements that the ADU be rented at below-market rates.
Zavala, a facilities technician and a contractor, wants to use his ADU as the springboard to a real estate investment business. He’s been looking to buy another property in Santa Paula, add an ADU if it doesn’t already have one, and rent out both units.
Though Zavala works in construction, when he decided to convert his garage, he hired a firm called Ventura ADU Specialists, owned by the Ventura husband and wife team of Juan Godinez and Maria Romero. They are part of a burgeoning industry of people who help homeowners design and build ADUs and navigate the permit process.
Godinez and Romero own another construction firm that does other types of homes, and they said about 80% of their business these days is on the ADU side. At any given time, they have about 30 ongoing ADU projects all over Ventura County, Godinez said.
The total budget for one of their projects can range from $50,000 for a garage conversion to $350,000 for a free-standing backyard cottage. Permit fees usually account for between $5,000 and $10,000 of that, depending on the size and type of the unit.
The time investment also varies, but Romero said most ADUs can be designed, approved and built in a year or less. One of the new state laws requires that cities and other local agencies approve or deny an ADU application in 60 days or less, but that clock doesn’t start until an application is “deemed complete,” and there can be delays reaching that stage.
“Because the laws are more favorable, people think it’s going to be a slam dunk, and they’ll have a permit in 60 days,” Romero said. “It’s not always that easy.”
Fight over fees
Fees can still be a sticking point. In 2020, Ric Vane applied to build an ADU in the backyard of his home in Oak View. The Ojai Valley Sanitary District, which provides sewer service in Ojai, Oak View and the rest of the Ojai Valley, told him the sewer fee for the new unit would be $16,500, the same as the district charged for a new single-family home, according to a lawsuit Vane would file in 2022 against the district.
Vane complained to the state, and the Department of Housing and Community Development issued a letter advising the district that it could not treat an ADU like a new single-family home for fee purposes.
The Ojai Valley Sanitary District has since cut the usual fee for a free-standing ADU to around $8,000. But the district has still assessed Vane a fee of $12,600, according to his lawsuit. He is fighting that in court, and in the meantime, his ADU has been built and rented out. Vane, 65, said he plans to move his older brother in someday.
Jeff Palmer, the general manager of the Ojai Valley Sanitary District, wouldn’t discuss Vane’s case because of the ongoing lawsuit, but said situations like his are rare. About 90% of the ADUs in the Ojai Valley are garage conversions, he said, so they can’t be charged any sewer fees beyond a $400 connection fee, under state law.
The higher fees for stand-alone units are necessary, Palmer said, because “everybody has to pay their share” to keep the district’s infrastructure in good condition.
“That money goes toward maintaining the capacity that exists in the system,” he said. “There’s a pipe in the ground and a treatment plant, and those can only handle so many units.”
A blow to local control
Not everyone is happy about the proliferation of ADUs. The laws that have cleared the way for tens of thousands of them in California came at the expense of “local control,” a concept that has traditionally governed the process for approving new housing.
The ADU laws are just one example of Sacramento legislating away some local control in the interest of building up California’s housing supply. Other laws in that vein include one, co-written by Wiener, that essentially ended single-family zoning in California, by allowing most single-family lots to be divided into two parcels, and allowing duplexes to be built on most properties zoned for a single home.
Kevin Kildee, a member of the Camarillo City Council since 1996, said he isn’t opposed to ADUs, but thinks “it would have been better if the state had worked with the municipalities” on new regulations. He’s particularly concerned about parking. Before 2017, Kildee said, Camarillo would only approve an ADU if the city could verify that it had adequate parking.
State law now says that cities can’t require parking at all if the ADU is within half a mile of public transit. If not, a city can require the builder of a stand-alone ADU to provide up to one parking space per bedroom, but the owner can use “tandem parking” — a driveway space that might be blocked in by other cars — to meet that requirement.
“This is relatively new and we haven’t seen the full impacts of it yet, but I think people are going to see their neighborhoods change, especially with regard to parking,” Kildee said. “We’re walking a really tricky balance with this.”
Steve Bennett represents the western half of Ventura County in the California Assembly, and before that he was a member of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors and the Ventura City Council. He’s voted for a number of ADU bills since joining the Assembly in 2020, but says he does generally support local control of land-use decisions.
“Local control has given us communities that people have input on and feel a sense of ownership with,” he said. “Taking away local control should be seen as a big deal. When you take it away, you ought to ensure that you’re getting what you need.”
When it comes to ADUs, “what you need” is affordable housing, Bennett said. He supports laws that prevent ADUs from becoming vacation rentals, and he said he would like to see more ADU permits tied to permanent rent limits. But on the whole, Bennett said the new status quo is “a healthy way” to get more housing without major disruptions to existing neighborhoods or excessive sprawl.
“I think the public is more aware of the crisis that we have, and I think that ADUs have become more acceptable than the idea of great big housing projects,” he said. “People see that it’s harder and harder for their children or their elderly parents to handle the housing crisis around here, so they see ADUs as a possibility to have their extended family around them, and they’re welcoming of that.”
Tony Biasotti is an investigative and watchdog reporter for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was made possible by a grant from the Ventura County Community Foundation’s Fund to Support Local Journalism.