When it comes to setting up housekeeping in the Bay Area, people on low or moderate incomes often have to make do by staying with friends or relatives, sharing an apartment or simply forgoing it and enduring a grueling commute from a distant town.
For people in such circumstances, an apartment above a garage could feel heaven sent. In a 39-page memo issued in December 2016, the state includes publication of new rules meant to increase the supply of such homes throughout California. The new standards address simpler administrative processes, minimum floor areas and parking requirements.
Cities and towns responded in 2017 with ordinances incorporating these regulations, sometimes with local touches forbidding short-term rentals of these units, as was done in Woodside and Portola Valley.
But it's one thing to establish a floor-area limit and quite another to set limits on how high or low to make a ceiling. The state's memo did not address aesthetics and livability. Would-be renters desperate for secure housing might scoff at local governments raising questions as to what is and is not livable, but it is a concern for the Woodside Town Council.
A staff report prepared for a council meeting last month included sketches of a theoretical efficiency unit that meets the new standards and sits on top of a 400-square-foot two-car garage close to a property line. The sketches, prepared by the Planning Department, showed an exterior stairway up to the apartment, a sloped roof that peaked inside the apartment at 7 feet, 6 inches, and eaves above the side walls that were considerably lower, enough to accommodate an adult sitting but not standing.
The stairs up to the apartment end in the middle of a wall, right under the roof's peak, so as to accommodate a full-sized door.
Inside, adults of average height could stand and walk without stooping in an imaginary hallway running the length of the room under the roof's peak, but headroom decreases toward the walls. The plan includes dormers that offer two additional areas with the headroom to allow standing.
"To create substandard housing units like this is an embarrassment," architect and Councilman Peter Mason said. "That is not a livable unit. Why would you build that bad of a unit that you're expecting people to live in? You're talking about a side wall that is 5-foot-6-inches high going up to 7 feet high (in the center). That is not a livable unit in Woodside ... and we shouldn't be building that."
"This doesn't work at all," said builder and Councilman Dave Tanner, noting the absence in the floor plan of a closet or anywhere else to store clothes.
Heights and massing
Town regulations constrain the dimensions of accessory structures near property lines. The plate height – the height of a wall from the foundation to the edge of the roof – cannot exceed 11 feet, and the ridge line – the highest point of the roof – cannot exceed 17 feet. Such limits, town officials say, reduce massing along property lines, a concern in neighborhoods like Woodside Glens, where parcels are relatively small.
"We cannot prohibit people from building units that meet the code," Planning Director Jackie Young told the council. "So the question really becomes: What does the town want to allow for a plate height and an overall height for these units that are allowed within 5 feet of the property line?"
Playing devil's advocate, Mr. Mason imagined an applicant arguing that the height restrictions are unreasonable when the goal is to construct a second story. "I think the state is going to say that a second-floor unit is a full-height unit," he said. "It isn't something that is buried within a roof."
Anyone could argue for an 8-foot-high ceiling and the state could support it, Mr. Mason said, adding: "How would we say no?"
The building code does allow habitable space "within a sloped roof," and the floor plan under discussion did have input from a professional architect, Ms. Young said. "Although it is a very awkward unit, it does meet the building code," she said.
Council members, she said, sounded as if they were willing to entertain increased heights and changes in dormer configurations, possibly including sliding scales that take into account the distance of an accessory structure from a property line.
'A crying need'
Dormers could be allowed to extend further along a roof. Such a change would help, but the impact bears thinking about, Mr. Mason said. "If we're going to end up with a bunch of mansard roofs because of this ... that's not acceptable," he said.
The town might not want to prohibit such interior configurations if they're meant for guests or children, Councilman Daniel Yost said.
The town of Woodside, Councilwoman Anne Kasten said, has "a crying need" to supply housing for adult children returning home, college students and people who work in town.
Referring to the floor plan under discussion, she said that in her opinion, it was not "thoroughly thought through" for townwide application. "I truly believe that it's time for us to acknowledge that times are different and we need to address this issue," she said. Restrictions on ridge lines were a reaction to "McMansions in other communities," she said.
Town Hall has the skills it needs to revise the regulations, she said. "To my mind, to really meet this issue, we really have to let the ridge (line) be higher, and I don't think that would be a travesty in this town. Three feet would make a huge difference."
The matter is scheduled to come back to the council for action on Feb. 13.
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