In 2020, the California economy imploded, wildfires burned hundreds of homes sending toxic smoke over our cities, and a novel virus infected nearly a million people in the state, killing more than 17,550 at last count. Oh, and California remained one of the most expensive places on the planet in which to live.
The affordability crisis is more durable than our droughts. It stems from Proposition 13, when a tax revolt capped tax increases on residential property. That spurred cities to allow more commercial development for additional sales tax. Over time, California added jobs for people who increasingly had nowhere to live.
Last week, the San Mateo County civil grand jury urged local governments to tackle this problem by encouraging “accessory dwelling units,” which are sometimes known as second units or granny flats. (We guess Grandpa is just supposed to live in the car.) Encouraging such development within existing single-family neighborhoods is a good idea for a variety of reasons, but it’s unlikely to make much of a dent in the affordability crisis.
The work for local governments is much bigger than simply encouraging homeowners to build a tiny house on their land.
Consider the scale of the problem. The grand jury notes that between 2010 and 2018, the county added 93,000 jobs but only 8,500 housing units. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in San Mateo County was $2,621 a month in 2019 (a number that has surely proven volatile since). More than two-thirds of the land in the county is protected from development as either agricultural and open space. Two-thirds of what remains is already developed as single-family housing.
A few second units here and there — and that’s what it’s been in Half
Moon Bay which is currently allowing about 20 ADUs a year — will not make an appreciable dent in the housing crisis. While that number may add up over time, consider that a portion of those will be simply rented to tourists through short-term rental apps like Airbnb or used within a family.
Second units help. But the government can do more to make a meaningful difference in housing affordability — through tax incentives, better planning for infill development, entirely new ways of thinking of their own revenue streams — than simply encouraging homeowners one at a time.
Clay Lambert is the editor of the Half Moon Bay Review.