Affordable Housing That Might Have Been

Many years ago when I was infinitely younger and a lot poorer I rented a little 9′ x 18′ back yard cottage behind an old Victorian in San Francisco. Today you might call it a Tiny House or Micro Flat. But back then it was just a 1930’s potting shed that had been fitted with a toilet, shower, and kitchenette. I was incredibly happy there. The space was exactly what I needed, the rent was low, and I didn’t need room mates to make ends meet. The landlord was also happy to have rental income to augment his pension as he aged. This was “affordable housing” that was entirely supplied by the private sector without government subsidies. Yet every aspect of this little backyard cottage is completely illegal under today’s zoning and building codes.

Sonoma County grape fields

Many years later I find myself the owner of a rental property in Sonoma County. As a landlord in a very tight obscenely-expensive housing market I saw an opportunity to both provide an additional rental unit at a minimum wage price point and make a little extra money for myself. The existing property is a 700 square foot two bedroom tract home that sits on a half acre of land. An additional 300 or 400 square foot cottage in the back garden could be affordable for me to build on a cash basis and affordable for a low income renter – without blighting the rural landscape.

An example of a tiny house.
Another example of a tiny house.

Sonoma County is a hotbed of Tiny House activity. I spent a few years exploring all sorts of possibilities. But at each turn I confronted a regulatory environment that was aggressively opposed to absolutely any form of new construction. Putting a house on wheels circumvented some of the rules, but living in a mobile home in the back yard is illegal. As a landlord I won’t subject myself to the risk of legal action, so that option was out as far as I was concerned.

It’s technically legal to build a permanent Accessory Dwelling Unit on a proper foundation, but the cost of compliance with endless regulations was ridiculous. A permit is $24,000. There’s an obligation to rip up the street and trench a completely redundant sewer line (minimum $15,000) instead of just tapping the existing sewer from the main house. The code requires fire sprinklers that will come in at about $10,000. The requirement for off-street covered parking means building a garage larger than the cottage itself. Then there’s the internal conflict of many of the codes. Permeable pavement is required for storm water runoff control, but that runoff is caused by the required added driveway and garage. Meanwhile a plain vanilla gravel parking space in the front yard is forbidden.

The list is absolutely endless and only a professional architect along with a consulting engineer can possibly understand the entitlement process and all the code minutiae, so factor in those billable hours as well. At the end of the day even a very modest backyard cottage was completely off the table for me. I will not go in to that kind of debt and I won’t tolerate charging the required high rent to service the loan. It’s a lose/lose proposition all around. No thank you.

Little Houses sales centre.

The county eventually realized that all these regulations were contributing to the housing crisis so they came up with a plan to reduce the cost and complexity of building ADUs. But then they loaded up on poison pills that imposed all sorts of other limitations that made it equally unpalatable. There weren’t many takers. Another “lite regulation” option was put in to place that allowed temporary portable cottages for health care workers looking after the elderly or infirm. You need a note from a doctor, regular government inspections, annual fees, and once Granny shuffles off this mortal coil, you need to remove the units from your property. NFW.

Community activists came up with their own proposals to build affordable Tiny House communities. They have some merit, but are based on a combination of government grants which come with their own endless strings and conditions, and a long laundry list of constraints that attempt to keep them permanently affordable and “green.” And the proposed price point? $200,000 per Tiny House. In what universe is that affordable to people earning a low income wage? Maybe this will work for someone else. But I can’t even pretend to involve myself with that kind of bureaucratic process. It also presupposes a car dependent rural or suburban growth model. There are hundreds (if not thousands) or acres of aging surface parking lots and half dead strip malls with existing infrastructure across the region. Many of them are in completely walkable and transit served locations that would work far better for people on tight budgets and no car.

So here’s what I’m doing instead. I bought a prefabricated flat packed cedar garden shed and installed it in the back half acre. It’s 10′ x 12′ which puts it exactly at the 120 square foot cut off that doesn’t require a permit. It has no electricity or plumbing so – again – no permit required. It isn’t a house. No one can every live here. It can never be rented. But I’ll be using it for my own short visits when I drive up to do maintenance and gardening on the rental property. It’s more convenient than having to commute back and forth from the city in a single day and ultimately less expensive than renting hotel rooms over the next decade or so.

I’ll be insulating the interior, putting up finished walls and flooring, and setting up proper furniture over time. It will be a perfectly comfortable guest room for the odd night or two when I’m up in the country. I’ve come to an agreement with the tenants. They let me use the facilities in the main house and they get to use the shed the 98% of the time when I’m not around. Everyone’s happy.

Many years ago I bought these wooden doors at an old warehouse in San Francisco that was about to be torn down to make way for the new baseball stadium downtown. I fitted them with mirrors and will eventually be bolting them to the walls. They add warmth, multiply the garden views, and bounce light around.

Since I was avoiding any permanent electric service to work around the dreaded county inspector I’m using 5 watt LED lights plugged in to little USB battery packs. These same batteries also charge iPads, laptops, cell phones and other small devices. I now have light, communications, music, podcasts, and so on, with no need for wall plugs. The climate in Sonoma is mild year round so there’s no need for heat or air conditioning. Even in the wet cool winter months proper clothing and a few blankets will keep you warm in bed.

This arrangement does nothing for the housing crisis and I won’t ever be gaining rental income from the place, but the little cedar shed was so inexpensive and easy to install that I don’t have to care about those other things. That’s someone else’s problem. Now it’s the obligation of the police and social services to sort out the hordes of needlessly homeless people living in tents under the freeway and in rusty RVs – which is the de facto affordable housing policy that’s been adopted all across the Bay Area. Meh.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo)

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