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California Residents Turn To 'Granny Flats' As A Small-Scale Solution For Housing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In California, there's not enough housing to meet demand these days, and what is available tends to be too expensive for most people. Big solutions like massive apartment complexes take years to build, so residents and cities are turning to a small-scale solution, the kind that can fit in a backyard. Rachael Myrow of member station KQED has more.

RACHAEL MYROW, BYLINE: Meet Brandt Pearse (ph) of San Jose. He's married with two kids under 5. They all live in a single-story ranch house that now includes a brand-new accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, in the back.

BRANDT PEARSE: We're in a housing crisis right now. And I think it's going to take communities working together and people working together to get out of that crisis without changing the character of the neighborhood.

PEARSE: ADUs have all kinds of nicknames - in-law units, guest houses, casitas and granny flats. As it happens, Pearse did rent his ADU to a granny, Wendy Stowe (ph), a retired wildlife biologist who doesn't need a lot of house these days but does need to live near her mom, daughter and grandkids.

WENDY STOWE: This is just perfect for me.

MYROW: This is 450 square feet, a studio apartment that doesn't feel like one because it's got 15-foot high ceilings, a kitchen you can cook in and a glass patio door that opens onto a private garden buzzing with bird life.

STOWE: Early in the morning, it's just tons of birdsong.

PEARSE: We love to get - doves love to hang out in Willow Glen, so you always hear them.

STOWE: Yeah, the doves.

MYROW: Three years ago, Pearse paid close attention when state legislation passed that barred cities and counties from blocking new ADUs. He knew San Jose's housing officials would be under pressure to make it easier than ever before for him to build.

PEARSE: For a while, I was looking at prefabricated units, which is kind of all the rage right now in the building world. But we ended up wanting to really build something that was quality. And we felt that we should hire a really professional and licensed contractor that has been in the business a long time.

MYROW: Altogether, including permits and fees, Pearse spent $180,000. Now, outside of California, that might seem like a ridiculous price tag, but here in high-priced Silicon Valley, 180k for 450 square feet sounds reasonable. Ask San Jose's mayor, Sam Liccardo.

SAM LICCARDO: Just the construction cost is about 650, $700,000 a unit for an apartment. We're not going to solve this crisis $650,000 at a time.

MYROW: Liccardo is one of a handful of big-city mayors in California openly pushing for big and small solutions to the housing crisis. He's proposed San Jose lend homeowners willing to build ADUs up to $20,000 in exchange for renting at below-market rates and not renting on platforms like Airbnb.

LICCARDO: Hopefully, what we can demonstrate in San Jose is how we can do this at a low enough cost that's appealing to enough folks. That will really enable it to scale not just to a few hundred units, but to thousands of units. And then it'll be a solution not just for San Jose, but for the whole Bay Area.

MYROW: That's music to the ears of State Senator Bob Wieckowski, who represents part of San Jose. He's the one who wrote the legislation in 2016 that launched an ADU construction boom across California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB WIECKOWSKI: The games are over. This infill housing that we're all talking about that needs to be done, it's going to happen suburbia.

MYROW: Now Wieckowski is pushing a follow-up bill to tackle more of the various ways cities use zoning rules and permit fees to block the units. That's tough talk, but his bills don't tell local officials how development is to happen, just that it must. For NPR News, I'm Rachael Myrow in San Jose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.