County expands affordable housing incentives


The county has adopted several new regulations pertaining to accessory dwelling units in a continued effort to incentivize the creation of affordable housing. Last month, supervisors approved an urgency ordinance that ushered in a suite of changes that align with new state laws, and separately acted to expand existing breaks on building and permitting fees.

“We are hopeful that the board’s actions to reduce regulatory barriers and increase financial incentives represent meaningful strides toward alleviating the housing crisis,” Tom Lai, the deputy director of the Community Development Agency, told the Light.

The Marin County Planning Commission will review the changes and evaluate a permanent ordinance that codifies them on Feb. 24. 

Among the new rules that came down from the state is an expedited review process for accessory units under 800 square feet, and for units built on properties with multi-family residential or mixed-use zoning; these projects will not require a public hearing or discretionary review. 

Additionally, new units above 1,000 square feet are newly required to have a minimum of two bedrooms. Property line setbacks were also relaxed for units converted from existing structures.

In a permanent move, supervisors also decided to revamp accessory dwelling unit fee waiver policies, which were first developed in 2017 following the wildfires to the north and in anticipation of an increased need for local housing.

Only property owners who do not use their units as short-term rentals qualify for the waivers, which were previously capped at $3,500 for accessory dwelling units—known as ADUs—and at $1,500 for junior accessory units—or JADUs.

ADUs have their own kitchen and can be either part of a main residence or a separate building, while JADUs have a wet bar and are typically within houses.

Waivers for ADUs now have caps that are tiered depending on the affordability of the unit. For homeowners who plan to rent the second unit at market rate or above, the cap was lowered to $2,500. But for units rented at moderate income rates, the cap was raised to cover costs up to $5,000. And for units rented at low-income rates, the cap is now $10,000.

That could be significant, given high building and permitting fees in Marin. County data shows that development fees for the 62 ADU permits issued in Marin in 2019, which reflected the previous fee waivers, ranged from $515 to $20,000 per unit. Average fees were $8,600.

The largest incentive, the waiver of $10,000, applies to units rented to people with an income at or below 80 percent of the county's median income. In Marin, a family of four earning $129,150 or below falls into that category.

That's a relatively high threshold. Most designated affordable housing in Marin serves households at 60 percent of the area median income, or $96,720 a year. 

Over the last several years, creation of ADUs and JADUs through the county’s fee-waiver program has been handled by the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin; the group’s Real Community Rentals program helps connect property owners with architects and builders as well as prospective tenants, and screens tenants on landlords’ behalf. Last year, the San Geronimo Valley Affordable Housing Association expanded the program to the valley.

CLAM reports that over the past three years, the program has created 24 new units in West Marin, including six JADUs, nine ADUs, seven home shares and two houses—accounting for housing for 30 people. Ruth Lopez, a program manager for CLAM, noted that none of the ADUs were new development.

Fee waivers are helpful, Ms. Lopez said, yet there are other barriers particular to the coast, including coastal permit fees, the need for septic system upgrades, and the reassessment of property by the county assessor’s office, which can increase taxes.

“All of these barriers contribute to additional expense of an ADU in West Marin and make it more difficult to set rents at affordable levels. The septic and coastal permit are issues that Central Marin does not face,” Ms. Lopez wrote to the Light.

To help make sense of the policy changes to interested homeowners, the board also allocated $90,000 in grant monies last month from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to increase public outreach regarding ADUs and JADUs with the launch of an improved website this fall. The site will include examples of code-compliant floor plans, a calculator to estimate construction costs and a step-by-step workbook. (San Mateo County has seen a 200 percent increase in ADU construction since it launched a website with these tools.)

In order to cover the estimated $330,000 in reduced fees in 2020, the board plans to allocate funds from the county’s affordable housing fund, which currently has a balance of $6,341,799.


For more information on the standards and permit process for JADUs and ADUs, call the county’s building and safety office at (415) 473.6550.