City may offer amnesty for unpermitted accessory dwelling units in exchange for affordable rent covenant

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Residents with unpermitted accessory dwelling units (ADUs) may soon have a pathway for amnesty that would increase Long Beach’s affordable housing stock. 

At their Tuesday, Jan. 5 meeting, the Long Beach City Council unanimously approved the first reading of the ordinance.

Unpermitted accessory dwelling units, the agenda item states, are usually one or two units carved out of spaces like laundry rooms or storage areas. They fill an “important niche” in the housing market, though their lack of permitting also means that these units don’t always meet health and safety guidelines. 

“Most of these units are already built out, occupied, and they’re substandard—they’re not safe,” Vice Mayor Rex Richardson said. “This is not amnesty for health and building codes. This actually brings these units out of the shadows and makes them safe.”

Under the new program, residents would hire a contractor, architect or engineer to assess their unit and, if needed, provide an estimated cost of potential rehabilitation.

If the cost of rehabilitation for a unit is too high, owners could choose to defer their application for a later time. The City does not plan to proactively enforce rules against unpermitted units.

Without ordinance, unpermitted units are removed from the housing market

The City doesn’t have an exact count of how many unpermitted ADUs exist in the city. According to Planning Officer Patricia Diefenderfer, Code Enforcement has addressed 157 cases related to building permits in the past eight months, though she did not know how many of these were for ADUs. 

The City can find out about these units through code enforcement checks, unrelated inspections or complaints, said Deputy Director of Development Services Christopher Koontz.

Infographic by Emma DiMaggio | Production Manager

If they’re found, inspectors serve a citation and an order to vacate the unit and convert it to no longer be a unit. In doing so, they destroy valuable housing stock for a city facing a housing crisis.

“That’s not a good public policy outcome for anyone. It’s not desirable for the city, for the owner or for the tenant,” Koontz said. “[When] we’re already in an enforcement situation, this gives us a relief valve. This gives the owner a way out, a way to legalize the unit, that doesn’t exist today.” 

Without this ordinance, only owners of ADUs that existed before 1964 have a pathway to permitting their building. A similar ordinance for converted garages already exists within the city.

The benefit for owners, besides amnesty for unpermitted units, is the opportunity to increase their property values. 

For example, without valid building permits or certificates of occupancy, a seven-unit multifamily home with an ADU could only be sold as a seven-unit property rather than an eight-unit property.

Affordability covenant will help City meet its state-mandated housing requirements

Periodically, the Southern California Association of Governments creates a Regional Household Needs Assessment (RHNA) that quantifies the need for housing in different cities. The assessment is mandated by state law.

The RHNA sets forth requirements for cities to create and maintain affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents.

As of August 2020, the City of Long Beach was falling short of its housing requirement. The City needs 15,000 units to meet the demand for very-low, low and moderate-income housing. This doesn’t include the need for 11,000 above-moderate income units.

They can meet these requirements by promoting new development, but also by maintaining currently affordable housing units like unpermitted ADUs.

“This is an opportunity to keep housing units on the market that are currently being occupied,” Councilmember Cindy Allen said. “This is going to be especially critical during a housing crisis.”

The ordinance requires all newly registered ADUs to include a 10-year affordability covenant. For each owner who receives permits for their unit, the City will gain another affordable housing unit towards their RHNA requirements. 

For a family of four in Los Angeles County, affordable rent prices range from $845 a month to $2,319 a month, as designated by the State.

During the meeting, Councilmember Mary Zendejas suggested increasing the affordability covenant length from ten years to 20 years, but Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais warned against it. 

Mais warned that, while affordable units were a priority within the city, a longer affordability covenant may disincentivize owners from registering their units.

Koontz suggested coming back to the council with a report on the usage of the program, at which point the council could provide further direction for the ordinance. Zendejas agreed to the proposal.

If this ordinance is passed at its final reading, all dwelling units that have been occupied before Dec. 31, 2016 will qualify for amnesty.

The item will come back at next week’s meeting for final approval. In addition, the ordinance is required to go to the California Coastal Commission for review and approval.

The next city council meeting will take place Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 4 p.m. via teleconference.

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