It's the Law: ‘Granny units’ cause headaches for landlords, tenants in Santa Cruz County
by Gary Redenbacher
May 22, 2014 | 1583 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
My last couple of columns were on the sometimes uneasy relationship between landlords and tenants.

On the one hand, landlords are looking to cash in on good, old-fashioned American capitalism.

On the other hand, tenants are looking for that homey place in the sun for the lowest possible rent.

There is a disconnect here and it is exacerbated by our gorgeous, but insanely expensive, county.

Many people have a difficult time finding a place that is affordable to rent.

Criticisms leveled at the county leadership of a generation ago say that the problem was made worse by a planning/zoning department that foisted so many requirements that rents climbed to the present stratospheric levels.

While I grant that the county’s slew of administrative and bureaucratic requirements is, in fact, byzantine, I don’t buy the argument that the effort to satisfy those requirements is solely or even largely responsible for our rents.

High rents are pretty universal all along the coast.

About 10 years ago, in recognition of the lack of affordable housing, Santa Cruz City passed an ordinance allowing “Accessory Dwelling Units” (ADU’s).

Some years before this both the County (“Second Units”) and Scotts Valley (“Secondary Dwelling Units”) passed their own ordinances.

These units are known to all humans other than those in governmental planning departments as mother-in-law or granny units. (It’s kind of like “supplemental restraint systems” which are known to all humans except automotive engineers as airbags.)

Just because granny units are allowed in Scotts Valley and San Lorenzo Valley doesn’t, however, mean you get to put cable out in the garage and advertise on Craigslist.  

There are a bunch of legal requirements. Chief amongst them is a minimum parcel size and a maximum granny unit size.

For example, if you’re in the San Lorenzo Valley and you do not have public sewer, your parcel must be less than a 30 percent slope and at least 1 acre before a granny unit up to 800 square feet is allowed.

If you’re interested, there’s a chart at Santa Cruz County Municipal Code section 13.10.681(D)(2) detailing the requirements for different lot sizes and the effect of being on septic versus sewer.

Granny units in the San Lorenzo Valley must generally conform to all other zoning requirements including that the owner must reside in either the main house or the granny unit.

In other words, no granny unit if you’re an absentee landlord.

I’ve tried to figure out the rationale for this, but it escapes me.

It strikes me that the main effect of such a requirement is to shrink the affordable housing stock.

Isn’t increasing the number of affordable units the reason behind allowing granny units?

Scotts Valley is a bit more forgiving.

A granny unit up to 800 square feet is allowed if your lot is at least 10,000 square feet, excluding all rights of way, and the slope is less than 20 percent.

There are a host of other requirements in both jurisdictions, but the one other requirement that may shock those hoping to build is the fees.

Although I did not query either building department, a client recently told me that the county wanted more than $15,000 before he could build his granny unit.

Seems to me that by charging such a fee, the landlord will have to charge a substantially higher rent thereby defeating the very purpose of allowing granny units. (Santa Cruz City has a fee waiver for very low rent units.

I briefly looked for fee waivers in both the county and Scotts Valley but found none.)

As you might have guessed, the profusion of laws as well as the cost of producing a granny unit has enticed more than one scofflaw to string that cable TV out to the garage and wham! Instant granny unit.

Of course, once you and your tenant come to loggerheads, you’ll get turned in for an illegal unit.

You then run into a passel of other laws, not the least of which is the relocation ordinance if you’re in the county.

But we covered that in the last column.

Are you sure you want to be a landlord?

- Gary Redenbacher of Scotts Valley is an attorney in private practice. E-mail him at
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