Napa 10 Questions: O’Connell knows How to ADU


Meet Ryan O’Connell, the founder of How To ADU, and an advocate for more housing in California.

O’Connell moved to Napa in 2012 to start The business funds winemakers around the country and around the world.

In traveling all over California’s wine regions, O’Connell recalled how he met many vineyard workers, winery teams, and hospitality staff that could not afford to live in the regions where they work.

“There just isn’t enough housing,” he said.

Falling back on his political science background (he earned a B.A. at Tulane University), O’Connell set out to explain Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to California homeowners.

His goal? “To create simple ways for homeowners to reduce California’s housing shortage, in a way that benefits them and their communities.”

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1. What was your childhood ambition?

I used to tell my parents that I wanted to be the President! But when I was 8, I saw Bill Clinton on TV and told my mom I didn’t want to be President anymore. She asked “why not?” and I said Clinton got a lot of gray hair in his first year.

2. What job would you like to try/not try?

Try: Generative AI (artificial intelligence) is so fascinating right now – I’d like to learn how to harness that power for good. I’ve heard that prompting AI will be an entire career one day, like learning how to use a printing press or code software.

Not try: I have so much respect for school teachers and, while I do a lot of educational content, I couldn’t imagine the responsibility of doing that in person and being responsible for a big group of young people.

3. How did you get into the housing industry?

I left my dream career in the wine world in the middle of a global pandemic to make a difference in the housing shortage.

When I launched How To ADU’s YouTube channel and Facebook group, I barely had three subscribers: me, my wife, and my mom!

Fast forward three years and we now have the largest online community of homeowners in California with over 20,000 members of our Facebook group, 54,000 followers on TikTok and 9,000 subscribers on YouTube.

It turns out that people really need information about these new laws and how they can use them to change their lives!

4. What is the biggest challenge your business/industry has faced?

Education and communication are the biggest challenges in the ADU space.

The state passes new zoning laws almost every year, and then each city and county have local staff and nonprofits all working individually on separate programs, ordinances, and more.

While we optimistically call this patchwork process something like the “laboratories of democracy” it ends up with a very fragmented system that varies from one zip code to another.

We are lucky that in Napa we have great programs at the county and city level, nonprofits like the Napa Sonoma ADU Center, and private sector innovation like Redwood Credit Union’s incredible ADU construction loan. So the challenge here is exporting those successful programs to other parts of the state.

5. What’s one thing Napa could do to help local business?

We need to build more housing so that the people who work in Napa can afford to live in Napa.

We benefit from a strong economy and provide a lot of work opportunities in our community, but we do not provide enough housing at different sizes, and levels of affordability.

If you’re a resident of Napa, or work or play here, I hope that you’ll support more housing being built so we can keep our community vibrant and healthy.

6. If you could change one thing about the housing industry, what would it be?

I hope that we all learn to work together to build great communities. Too often, I see arguments between groups of people who should be natural allies.

For example, pro-housing developers, tenant protection organizations, environmentalists, and labor activists may all take different “sides” of a debate. But there are good, smart ways to build that make our communities stronger and serve all of us well.

7. What’s your favorite gift to give?

My go-to is old bottles of wine that I made back in the day. That has to be the least original answer, but it’s the truth. I love sharing wine with people, and sharing a story about the bottle.

8. What’s your favorite charity or nonprofit?

The Napa Sonoma ADU Center and the Napa Valley Community Foundation. Honestly, I am very lucky to be based in a place that takes housing so seriously and has devoted so much talent and so many resources to housing.

9. What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?

I tried to buy a Swedish porcelain factory on vacation once.

10. What is one thing you hope to accomplish in your lifetime that you haven’t yet?

I want to help California reach its goal of building 180,000 units of housing a year.

When I first said that, my wife suggested “maybe start with one.”

Home movies that included this 1962 film taken at Disneyland were recently digitized by Napa’s Closs family. The family has owned and run Buttercream Bakery for many years. Disneyland opened in 1955. 

Closs family

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