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City of Novato Wants You To Cozy up to Your Mother-in-Law

As it adds housing without building more housing.

A junior second unit in Novato

A junior second unit in Novato 

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Novato’s answer the housing crisis: Just put more people in the houses already there. The city has a shortage of housing but an excess of rooms, with 50 percent of households consisting of a single person or a single couple. When the kids move away, retirement looms, or financial hardships strike, turning the spare bedroom into an apartment provides low-cost housing to renters and financial security for homeowners. But until recently, doing it legally was a pricy proposition.

“Converting a bedroom should be a simple, inexpensive project, but as soon as you label a room ‘Affordable Housing’ there are fees for water use, road use, parking, sewer, even mandatory fire sprinklers,“ says Rachel Ginis, a Corte Medera artist and designer who hung onto her house as a working single parent by turning in-home landlord. “That would make sense if you were building a cottage, but if the room has been there all along why should it cost you $40,000?”

Ginis lobbied Bay Area cities to relax the law a few years ago and found an engaged audience in Novato’s Community Development Director Bob Brown. “We sat down and went through the rules line by line, and by the time she was done it seemed like there was no reason not to do this.” The city started waiving fees this year. Homeowners still have to pay for an exterior door and kitchenette in the new unit, but it’s the difference between a $5-10K bill and a $50K one. Tiburon, San Rafael and Berkeley are making the rules less onerous as well. The Bay Area is starved for places to put renters: Here’s a supply of affordable housing stock that doesn’t even require breaking ground.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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