Dear Pasadena City Council Members,
A long overdue update to the Second Dwelling Unit Ordinance is before you at the January 30, 2017, City Council public hearing. With the passage of AB 2299 and SB 1069, all local jurisdictions are obligated to amend zoning ordinances to facilitate easier pathways to building accessory dwellings units (ADUs). As the staff report notes, the new state laws came about in response to a statewide affordable housing crisis. We see it in Pasadena. It’s rendered in the presence of homeless encampments, occupied vehicles on city streets and parking lots, and the existence of unpermitted housing on private properties across the city.
Pasadena responded with a tepid ordinance amendment that complied with the state’s mandated ADU laws but failed to examine the problematic operational and development standards in the original ordinance. In a December 12th Open Letter to the Pasadena Planning Commission, I called these standards “poison pills” because they discourage new ADUs and make the ordinance unworkable in practice.
Many housing advocates joined me in voicing concerns about the weak proposal at the Pasadena Planning Commission’s December 14, 2016, public hearing. We asked the Planning Commission to fix it. Commissioners summoned the courage to remove some, but not all, of the poison pills.
The original Second Dwelling Unit Ordinance was broken from the start. The amended ordinance remains unfair and unfeasible. There’s no date for the “anticipated comprehensive review” of the ordinance as part of the Housing Element Implementation Program. Thus my call for a comprehensive overhaul of the ADU ordinance remains unfulfilled.
So once again, I outline my grievances against Pasadena’s ADU ordinance. I urge you to consider these grievances in concert with our city’s urgent need to improve affordable housing access:
- The minimum lot size of 15,000 square feet to build an ADU represents an unjust codification of upper-class privilege because it limits new ADUs to large parcels owned by wealthier Pasadena residents. Maintaining this ridiculous lot size hurdle does nothing to alleviate the affordable housing crisis. The minimum lot size to build an ADU should be at or near 5,000 square feet. This reasonable threshold opens more opportunities for property owners with standard sized lots and diverse income levels to build ADUs legally, and it’s on par with neighboring jurisdictions such as the County of Los Angeles.
- The limit of 800 square feet per ADU is arbitrarily low and does not accommodate the spatial needs of single occupants, couples, or families residing in such dwellings. The maximum gross floor area should be at or near 1,000 square feet to provide occupants more generous living space.
- The 17-foot height limit of a single-story detached ADU ignores that fact that many long-ago-built legal nonconforming apartments exist above garages in Pasadena. As a city that respects its history, Pasadena can learn from such past practices.
- The ban on an ADU’s entry being visible from the street is utterly absurd. No reasonable justification for this standard has been given because none exists. Dismiss this ridiculous provision with prejudice.
- Despite the alleged Findings of Consistency, this amendment is inconsistent with the policy objectives of Pasadena’s General Plan. As proposed, the amended ordinance does not “provide opportunities for a full range of housing types, densities, locations, and affordability levels to address the community’s fair share of” housing pursuant to Policy 2.1 (Housing Choices). It does not facilitate “a variety of affordable housing types” pursuant to Policy 21.1 (Adequate and Affordable Housing). It does not “encourage, foster, and protect a balanced mix” of housing throughout the entirety of the city pursuant to Policy HE-1.1 (Neighborhood Character). And it does not “facilitate and encourage diversity” in housing options pursuant to Policy HE-2.1 (Housing Diversity). The lack of General Plan consistency is alarming.
- Unpermitted housing is found in every jurisdiction, every geography, every demographic, and every socioeconomic stratum. Among the many reasons for this condition is the codification of infeasible zoning codes that thwart efforts to build safe and legal ADUs. Pasadena’s original and amended ordinances embody these contradictions. Our unusable ordinance explains, in large part, why unpermitted housing exists across Pasadena. When people need housing, people build housing. When formal channels are unworkable, people build “informally.” When a zoning ordinance obstructs construction of legal ADUs, people ignore the ordinance. It’s that simple. Paradoxically, our overly restrictive ADU laws encourage an unregulated, off-the-books housing market. This “hidden density” should concern you for many reasons, namely:
- Unsafe housing is being built and rented without the benefit of permits or inspection.
- Substandard housing arrangements are fire hazards that threaten the lives of occupants and neighbors. The Ghost Ship and Aviles Family tragedies are vivid reminders of the dangerous consequences of unpermitted housing.
- Unpermitted housing adds “unaccounted for” and unplanned usage to our local utilities, sewers, and street parking access.
- Obstacles to building legal ADUs diminish access to safe and permitted affordable housing options.
- Occupants of unpermitted housing are far less likely to be counted by Census takers, resulting in population and housing under-reporting that directly impacts federal funding for our community.
- The lack of site plan review and building permits issued to unpermitted dwellings equates to untold losses of potential annual revenue for the City of Pasadena.
- Stealth housing will likely go unaccounted for during the upcoming Housing Element Implementation Program.
- Systemic rejection of housing code compliance undermines the ordinance’s validity.
I’ll say it again: we need a comprehensive overhaul of the ADU ordinance that encourages residents to develop affordable, safe, and legal accessory housing in Pasadena. Allowing more ADUs helps Pasadena address the local and regional housing crisis with units scaled to fit into its lower density neighborhoods. ADUs help households provide living space for family members, from grannies to millennials. Property owners may also choose to rent out their ADUs to help pay the mortgage. The ability to develop safe and legal ADUs enables more Pasadena residents to help “shape this city.”
Pasadena calls itself a “world class” city with “great neighborhoods and opportunities for all,” a city that’s “responsive to our entire community,” and one that values “diversity and inclusiveness.”
Advocate a humane and usable ADU ordinance that enables new housing arrangements for all residents.
Jonathan Pacheco Bell
Pasadena District 5 resident
Author Correction: An earlier version identified the 30-day rental term in the ordinance as a “limit” of 30 days. This was incorrect. The article has been updated.