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Ventura County Perspective

Time for Granny Flats

April 22, 2001

One answer to Ventura County's shortage of affordable housing may be as close as the back yard.

Policies that encourage or discourage homeowners from building a second dwelling unit on their properties are getting a closer look in some cities as well as from county government.

That's the sort of new attitude Ventura County residents need to adopt if they are to live within the anti-sprawl measures adopted so resoundingly by voters over the past few years.

With new limits on the traditional amoeba-like expansion of urban areas into surrounding farmland and open space, greater density within developed neighborhoods is inevitable. Maintaining a supply of housing affordable by people in the lower-income brackets becomes more difficult. Old habits and patterns simply won't work.

One example discussed last week by the Board of Supervisors is those second units on existing residential properties, commonly called "granny flats." For 13 years, the county Public Works Department has been routinely denying permits for them in unincorporated areas, citing concern over the traffic their occupants might add to streets and highways.

The department is proposing to change that policy, cutting by more than half its estimate that each such dwelling would add one peak-period car trip per day to the existing load. Supervisor Steve Bennett rightly asked that the policy change be delayed until it can be considered in the bigger picture of the county's housing, traffic and air quality situation. His colleagues concurred.

It just makes sense to look at all of the elements of this complicated equation together rather than one at a time. But that won't make it easy to do the right thing.

In some cases, maybe many cases, that granny flat is indeed intended for Granny--an aging parent or grandparent who no longer drives. In those cases, the Public Works Department may be right in scaling down its impact estimates. But who is to verify the identity and driving habits of the prospective tenant? And what transportation alternatives are available for tenants who pledge to remain car-free?

In other cases, those second units could end up housing families with multiple cars--or even multiple families, a phenomenon that is all too common even in the wealthier cities of this county so short on affordable homes. Then the impact on roads, schools, utilities and other services would be significant, and simply changing the way Public Works counts cars wouldn't help at all.

The county is currently revising the housing element of its General Plan, something that it is required to do periodically. The planning experts doing the revising are well aware of the urgent need to find homes for county residents at all income levels. Granny flats certainly should be part of that plan.

The current situation encourages people to build and rent such units illegally, even offering garages and tool sheds as dwellings to desperate renters. Clearly, changes are warranted, but they must be comprehensive, not piecemeal.

The planning experts doing the revising are well aware of the urgent need to find homes for county residents at all income levels.

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