santa cruz affordable housing
February 2020

Making it Easier to Build Accessory Dwelling Units

County Scoop: February 2020

By Zach Friend, County Supervisor, District 2

Throughout California there are discussions about how to address the significant affordable housing crisis.

Zach Friend Santa Cruz County Supervisor

Recent studies on home affordability have shown that in coastal communities like ours less than a quarter of people earn enough income to be able to purchase a home and many can’t afford rising rents. Grandparents watch as their kids and grandkids move away as they are unable to deal with the cost of living. 

There is no question that housing costs in Santa Cruz County are one of the biggest challenges facing our residents – especially young families. It’s common to hear stories about people working multiple jobs to pay rent, or kids and grandkids growing up here just to move away to find less expensive housing. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of vacation rentals and second homes limiting overall housing stock and putting additional price pressure on local residents.

If you’re like most young families, your parents or other relatives would like to be as close to their grandchildren as possible – and many of us could use the support that comes with raising a child near a family network. Having your parents in a unit on your property could be an options. Also, given the high housing costs, having a rental on the property might provide enough income to help make monthly payments more manageable. 

One way the Board of Supervisors has worked to do these things is make the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs – or granny units) much easier and cheaper to build.

Why would this be helpful to a young family?

ADUs allow a few options for young families, or grandparents looking to stay close to their children and grandchildren. For parents looking to age in place in their homes, they can construct an ADU to live in while providing the main house to their family. For people looking to obtain some income while renting a unit that is affordable by design (meaning the rents are generally lower than apartment complexes or condos of similar size) an ADU provides options that meets both of these needs. 

santa cruz affordable housing

What policies have been enacted to make it easier to build an ADU?

The County has approved multiple incentives for increased ADU construction, starting with a simpler process. For example, the County released an interactive toolkit making it easier for homeowners to design, permit and construct and ADU. Additionally, the Board of Supervisors eliminated County permit fees for all ADUs 640 square feet and smaller, streamlined the timeline of the permit process and created a forgivable loan program (that could cover the cost of fees and even construction in some cases) for units that are deed restricted affordable housing units. Put simply, it’s now cheaper, easier and faster to build an ADU in the unincorporated area. 

In order to ensure the ADUs would contribute to the housing stock, the Board of Supervisors put in rules to prevent these ADUs from becoming short term rentals (vacation rentals). 

What does the new ADU toolkit provide?

Available at, the toolkit includes an overview of recently revised regulations designed to make it easier to build ADUs, a cost and cash flow estimator, guides and FAQs about design, construction and financing, and more. It also includes a mapping tool allowing property owners to instantaneously determine if their property can have an ADU and the maximum allowed size. 

Financial assistance to build an ADU is available under two new programs. The County is making up to $40,000 available as a forgivable loan to applicants who agree to make their ADU affordable to those making up to 80 percent of area median income for a period of 20 years. Through the “My House My Home” program, the County has also partnered with Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay and Senior Network Services to assist low-income seniors interested in building ADUs to create extra income and remain in their homes. 

The ADU toolkit is designed to give residents curious about ADUs easy answers to the County’s simplified and streamlined construction process. Under the new program, most residential lots in the unincorporated area with an existing single-family home are potentially eligible for an ADU. 

The County has also created simplified, downloadable guides on  ADU Basics, an ADU Design Guide, and an ADU Financing Guide. Collectively, the guides provide answers to many common questions without requiring a trip to the County’s Planning Department. 

There isn’t one simple solution to reducing housing costs. But one promising approach is to increase the number of accessory dwelling units (ADUs). As always, if you have questions about this or any other issue in our County please feel free to visit me in my open office hours or reach out to me at 454-2200. 

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