Not just for grannies: accessory dwelling units are Laguna’s hottest housing topic

Debbie Lewis was among the first local residents to add an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) to her historic 1927 Woods Cove home. The design retained the original garage doors and no changes were made to the home’s exterior. Moose and his humans moved into the one-bedroom unit last year and are now part of the neighborhood. Photo by Barbara McMurray

By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent

Like all California cities, Laguna Beach must move forward with allowing homeowners to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or “granny flats” to meet state-mandated requirements to plan for more housing. Less onerous restrictions and processes now apply, including skipping the city’s lengthy design review process.

ADUs, state officials say, can house family members, students, the elderly, in-home health care providers, the disabled, and others at more affordable prices. Homeowners who create ADUs can generate added income and an increased sense of security. Such lower-cost housing is intended to meet the needs of existing and future residents within existing neighborhoods while respecting architectural character.

Such complete, independent living facilities for one or more people can be a newly built detached unit in a side or back yard, attached to a primary structure, or converted space like a garage or storage area. Laguna Beach Seniors is one organization touting ADUs as a way for older residents who may be house-rich but cash-poor to generate added income by renting out converted living space. ADUs give homeowners the flexibility to share independent living areas with family members and others, allowing seniors to age in place as they require more care, thus helping extended families stay together while maintaining privacy. Space can be used for a variety of reasons, including adult children who can pay off debt and save up for living on their own.

Cody Engle, vice-chair of the ADU subcommittee under the city’s Housing and Human Services Committee and board president for Laguna Beach Seniors, noted, “ADUs have multiple benefits. They increase the city’s stock of more moderately priced housing. They’re a way for long-term residents to stay in the community they love through generating income or downsizing. Seniors who no longer want to navigate their home’s stairs might discover they enjoy living in a garage converted into a handsome, single-level, 500-foot studio.”

The Housing and Human Services Committee has been actively involved in working with city staff to develop a comprehensive ADU ordinance that meets state requirements but recognizes Laguna Beach’s uniqueness. Before his appointment last month to the Planning Commission, former ADU subcommittee chair Steven Kellenberg developed an extensive program to help educate homeowners about the ADU process. The plan is for the city website to make it easy for residents to access all the ADU information they need.

Alex Rounaghi, who recently took on Kellenberg’s role as subcommittee chair, commented, “While the process to remodel a home can be lengthy and complex, the process to build an ADU isn’t. Our goal is to make homeowners aware of these changes.”

Soon, the city website will include detailed information about all steps of the ADU process, from permitting to financing to building. The subcommittee is working on developing an interactive tool that allows prospective ADU owners to estimate the cost to build an ADU and the yearly potential rental income.

“Homeowners deserve to understand the potential benefits of building an ADU,” Rounaghi added. “We also plan to conduct town halls and host forums with experts. Accelerating the production of ADUs is critical for our city to comply with our state-mandated housing goals. More importantly, ADUs are essential for us to maintain our village character. How can we call ourselves an artist community when so many Laguna artists can no longer afford to live here? ADUs are our city’s best hope to deliver long-overdue affordable housing for our residents.”

“People are still hesitant, mainly because the process seems daunting. Laguna Beach has a reputation as a difficult place to build or remodel a home,” Rounaghi said. “But we need to expand the available housing in Laguna to reach the magical number set forth by the state of 395 additional dwelling units. We can get there with creativity and a little less NIMBY-ism.”

Engle added, “We are trying to make the process clearer and more simple. Expect local ADU activity to increase, because it provides the potential for more housing that is nominally affordable. The city is seeking to encourage landlords to offer more affordable units with below-market rents through incentives of reduced fees and, potentially, grants. ADUs will increase the city’s stock of more moderately priced housing.”

Debbie Lewis was among the first to take the plunge three years ago to create an ADU in her historic Woods Cove home. The house had only two owners before her—a prominent Hollywood family that built it in 1927 and her in-laws who bought it from them in 1960. Because the ADU concept was so new to the Community Development Department, there were many layers to the process that current applicants will not face. One of them was the design review process, long known as one of the most onerous and time-consuming aspects for building in Laguna Beach. The exterior of the home—unusual for its size, a 3,000-square-foot cottage on three levels—remained unchanged in the redesign to accommodate a one-bedroom ADU.

“My architect, Todd Skendarian, incorporated the original 1927 garage doors into the design,” Lewis said, “We created an ADU from an existing downstairs bedroom with a bath and a garage space to make a 597-square-foot dwelling I completed last year and rented out in December.” Her tenants, she noted, melded seamlessly into the neighborhood. “They know more of my neighbors than I do.”

Lewis is enthusiastic about the new options ADUs present to Laguna residents. She echoed the viewpoint that they will give seniors attractive new options and create more housing.

Former mayor Elizabeth Pearson, long an advocate for Laguna Beach’s seniors, recently launched Laguna ADU, her business that helps seniors and others in Laguna Beach create ADUs on their properties. Her knowledge of the ins and outs of city processes and the state’s requirements, she said, provides her clients a one-stop resource for help with an initial consultation through receipt of the certificate of occupancy upon completion of the project. Her business will work exclusively with Laguna Beach-based architects/designers, engineers, and licensed contractors.

Email [email protected] if you have questions or are interested in getting involved with the work of the city’s ADU subcommittee.

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  1. Great job, Alex Rounaghi. Thank you for your part in making the community aware that adding an ADU is a reasonable way to extend housing that is so badly needed in Laguna Beach. Affordable housing is a big problem in our society today.


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