Dear Pasadena Planning Commissioners,
We’ve come a long way from Pasadena’s 2004 second dwelling unit ordinance that effectively codified irrational NIMBYism in the Zoning Code. The proposed amendment to the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance before you at the May 24, 2017 hearing represents a significant improvement; it came about as a result of the relaxed standards for ADUs by way of AB 2299 and SB 1069, as well as the passionate testimony of residents and housing advocates in public hearings and community meetings. However, a few points of contention remain – some of the “poison pills” and class-based inequalities carried over from the original ordinance – while other points merit highlighting for this latest public hearing. I ask you to take these comments under consideration as you evaluate the amended ADU ordinance for recommendation to the Pasadena City Council.
Minimum lot size – REDUCE to minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet
The proposed minimum lot size reduction from 15,000 square feet to 7,200 square feet is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough to maximize the equitable pathways to build new ADUs in Pasadena. I urge you to recommend a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet. This would offer a reasonable threshold that opens up more opportunities for land owners with standard sized lots and diverse income levels to build ADUs legally. That the City of Pasadena considers parcels less than 7,200 square feet to be “substandard” highlights a problem with Pasadena’s definition and nothing more. As I noted in my prior public comments to your Commission and the City Council, the larger the lot size hurdle, the lesser chance for middle-and working-class families to build ADUs on their properties. We cannot continue to codify upper-class privilege in the Zoning Code vis–à–vis minimum lot size standards benefitting wealthier property owners with larger parcels. As the intent of State Law is to facilitate production of ADUs, a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet enables this goal in Pasadena.
Base zoning – SUPPORT inclusion of RS and RM zones
I support development of ADUs in the RS and RM zones. The inclusion of properties zoned RM increases opportunities to build safe and legal ADUs in Pasadena.
Landmark overlay – SUPPORT inclusion of Landmark and historic districts
I support inclusion of Landmark overlay districts and historic districts as areas eligible for new ADUs subject to the recommended development standards. The addition of Landmark and historic districts increases opportunities to build safe and legal ADUs throughout Pasadena, unencumbered by the city’s many historic districts. The proposed standards for ADUs in Landmark and historic districts balance Pasadena’s urgent housing needs and the imperative to preserve the historic character of these districts.
Setbacks for detached exterior ADUs – SUPPORT encroachment into side and rear yard setback areas
I support the reduced side and rear yard setback areas for ADUs and encroachment into the side and rear yards as buildable space. ADUs should have the same encroachment allowance as other accessory structures already permitted in side and rear yards. The reduced setbacks facilitate development of ADUs, including the conversion of existing accessory structures in yard areas, such as detached garages and pool houses, in a manner that’s consistent with existing conditions and standards. Priorities matter here. We must be less concerned with storing cars and pool supplies and more concerned with housing people.
Location of an entry door – REMOVE obstructionist “door location” provision
The original prohibition on an ADU’s entry being visible from the street was ridiculous from the start. As the staff report informed us, the apparent reasoning was to “maintain single-family neighborhood character,” a flawed premise that’s contradicted with just a leisurely trip around the city. In wealthy parts of Pasadena, many old school second units are viewable from the street, and their front doors are visible from the public right-of-way. Doubtless the original prohibition was rooted in the NIMBY irrational fear of density, whereby more doors meant “more people,” conjuring up images of duplexes and apartments, which apparently was frightening enough to exclude a publicly visible door of a second unit through zoning. This was, in a word, an obstructionist standard meant to appear benign but in practice operated to suppress development of new ADUs. This same critique applies to the amended ordinance. Whether attached or detached, the ADU should not be subject to obstructionist “door location” standards that impede development of ADUs.
Maximum unit size – INCREASE maximum unit size to 1,200 square feet
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. Consistent with State Law, the maximum gross floor area should be increased to 1,200 square feet to provide occupants more generous living space. As to the concern of ADU scale and size in relation to the primary residence, staff can add a provision that mandates a smaller and subordinately sized ADU if the primary residence is 1,200 square feet or smaller.
Height limits for ADUs – INCREASE height limit to allow ADUs above garages
The 17-foot height limit of a 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 proposed ordinance should be amended to accommodate development of ADUs above garages; this can be accomplished with an increase in the height limit to 25 feet for ADUs above garages. While concerns of view obstruction and privacy are understandable, these justifications should not be fashioned into poison pills to kill outright the development of ADUs above garages. Multi-story single-family residences and second story additions are allowed in Pasadena; in other words, there are existing pathways in the zoning code to build dwellings above 17 feet in single-family residential areas, so let’s create a legal pathway for ADUs, too.
Residential Impact Fees – WAIVE for ADUs
The current Residential Impact Fee of $18,979.88 for a one-bedroom dwelling unit is, in itself, egregious. This exorbitant cost discourages working families from developing new housing arrangements and ADUs on their properties. As Planning staff collaborates with Public Works on this matter, I’m stating unequivocally that the Residential Impact Fee should be waived for ADUs. The Residential Impact Fee undercuts the ability to develop affordable ADUs in single-family areas and, paradoxically, can encourage development of unpermitted housing built “on the stealth” at a far lower cost.
The costs and consequences of unpermitted housing – COMMISSIONER REMINDER
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 legal ADUs. Pasadena’s original second unit ordinance embodied this problem, and the amended ordinance before you, while an improvement, can do more to remedy these contradictions. The staff report’s reference to 17 current code enforcement cases for unpermitted housing only reflects substantiated violations: more unpermitted housing arrangements exist across Pasadena city limits. Our previously unusable second unit ordinance was part of the problem. A reminder: When people need housing, people build housing. When formal channels are unworkable, people build “informally.” When the zoning ordinance obstructs construction of legal ADUs, people ignore the ordinance. In the end, an overly restrictive ADU ordinance encourages 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 fire in Oakland and Aviles Family tragedy in Long Beach 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” in housing surveys undertaken in Pasadena.
- Systemic rejection of housing code compliance undermines the ordinance’s validity.
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.”
Here’s where you can prove it by advocating an equitable ADU ordinance that enables new housing arrangements for all residents.
Jonathan Pacheco Bell
Pasadena District 5 resident
Author note: This commentary is a lightly edited version (with added hyperlinks) of my public comment email to City staff on this item.