Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

Napa’s going all in to promote granny flats

Accessory housing units in Napa

The city of Napa is trying to simplify the permitting path for accessory housing units such as this dwelling in the Alta Heights neighborhood, whose owner converted it from a former storage area of her home last year.

Living with your mom is about to be cool again thanks to the creation of a new program dedicated to the construction of ‘granny flats’. The initiative is another step in Napa’s redoubling of its commitment to creative solutions that could bolster the city’s limited and costly housing supply.

Of course, you don’t have to rent your granny flat to your mother, or any relative for that matter. The term refers to accessory dwelling units (ADUs) – small, self-contained living quarters located either adjacent to or on the grounds of single-family homes – and Napa is poised to make a serious push for homeowners to build them.

The Napa Valley and Sonoma County community foundations have partnered to create a one-stop shop for residents. Efforts go back over a year, and they will crystallize with this hub of information and resources regarding the ADU market and the creation of a full-time position to oversee the operation.

“We’re attracted to it because we see it as a way that private citizens can be a solution to the largest public problem that we have in Napa these days, the scarcity of housing and housing for the workforce in particular,” said Terence Mulligan, president and CEO of the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

According to Mulligan, they hope to have the bulk of the program rolled out by early March.

The result of of the two-county partnership, Napa Sonoma ADU and funded by a mix of city dollars, foundation money and donations raised by the foundations, will focus on education and outreach, but it will also provide more technical assistance, Mulligan said. Things like workshops, free site assessments and a roster of experts willing to work on these projects in the area, he added.

For those early in the process, the digital platform will be helpful. There’s already a website dedicated to taking the intimidation factor out of tackling a construction project, including a workbook that tries to resolve the tedious task of identifying county- and city-specific guidelines as well as a price calculator that helps homeowners anticipate their costs.

“All the research in this realm … says that lots of people think about doing it but between the thought and the deed lies the shadow,” Mulligan said. “Our hypothesis is that the shadow is that it’s complicated.”

Recent state laws have made the addition of a granny flat all the easier with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration making bumping up ADU numbers a focal point of its plan to address California’s housing and affordability crisis.

The slate of laws signed in October allowed residents to both build separate apartments in their backyard and convert garage space (formally known as ADUs and junior ADUs), permitting triplexes if spatial and setback regulations are met. It also puts a ceiling on what cities can charge owners in impact fees and waives the owner occupancy requirement that previously existed.

It further accelerates Napa’s existing efforts to smooth the way for homeowners to build additional living quarters on their property, generating a source of personal income and what Mulligan describes as a “complement to the traditional way of building affordable housing.”

Napa’s rental vacancy rate hovers around two percent, according to city officials, compared to the Census Bureau’s most recent national tally of 6.4 percent. That translates to a housing shortage here in Napa, making it harder for aspiring renters or homeowners to actually find an empty place to live.

It also drive up prices. According to Zillow, an online real estate platform, the median monthly listed rental price in the city of Napa is $3,100, up by roughly $1,000 since 2010.

Residents voice persistent frustration over the lack of housing to serve a range of incomes. A community survey put out at the end of November showed more than 40 percent say they think it’s the city’s most pressing issue.

ADUs help address the two polar extremes. They’re “affordable by design,” said Vincent Smith, Community Development manager for the city of Napa. He uses the example of a small 500-square-foot studio built on someone else’s property.

“It’s not going to cost as much as a one-bedroom apartment at market rate. As the homeowner, you can only command so much rent, so it’s more affordable to someone out there,” he said.

Though ADUs now enjoy a certain kind of stardom among state government, City Council has been on the frontier of these changes. Going back to 2015, it’s taken a number of steps to slowly open the door to accessory units as California laws evolve.

Last April, the Planning Commission approved a streamlined permit process in which owners submit a single application for plans and building and can break ground immediately upon approval as opposed to two separate filings for plans and building. It also lifted the 50 percent number that previously limited how much a granny flat could increase total floor space of a property, though it maintained the citywide cap of 1,200-square-feet per ADU.

The year prior, junior units – those 500 square feet or smaller – were deemed too expensive, so the City Council, along with Napa Sanitation District and Napa Valley Unified School District, passed fee breaks that accounted for roughly 60 percent of the original total cost to build these small residences.

The number of applications for ADUs in Napa has steadily increased, too. In 2018, 44 people submitted plans for approval, up from 31 in 2017 and 18 in 2016. Of those, 21 were approved in 2018, as compared to 17 and two in the two years preceding.

Progress aside, this emphasis on ADUs is far from a one-size-fits-all solution, officials said.

First, they can be expensive to build. A shortage of construction labor and materials compounded by significant housing loss during the 2017 wildfires mean it could cost homeowners.

But, according to Smith, expenses can be reduced.

“There are a number of companies that make accessory dwelling units as kits so you pay for a foundation and have a prefabricated unit arrive,” he said. “But then there are people who treat it like they’re building a house, just one that’s 700 square feet instead of 2,500. That’s going to be more expensive.”

Then there’s the question of who these granny flats are meant to serve. The name speaks volumes: in many cases, they’re considered useful for multi-generational families who want to provide housing for relatives but lack the space or the desire to put everyone under the same roof. They could also be used for renters who can’t afford Napa’s pricey rental market but still have the resources to pay for something a notch below.

Mulligan doesn’t discount the need for continued investment in “gorgeous” affordable housing units like Stoddard West, and he hopes it continues. But, he says, “those sorts of developments are sort of like unicorns in Napa County,” citing land cost, scale concerns and the “unfortunate” community opposition that can often arise when such projects are proposed.

City Council recently approved the development of the Saratoga Vineyard Subdivision, a 20-home luxury residential community that, due to a Planning Commission condition of approval, will include six houses outfitted for ADUs. However, even Council realized this wouldn’t be serving Napa’s most housing insecure, though they did look at it as part of a multi-pronged approach to upping the city’s supply.

“This is not going to solve it. We are so far behind. If everyone who could build an ADU did, we wouldn’t be close,” Councilwoman Mary Luros said. “There’s so much we have to do all at the same time to address the housing crisis.”

Luros’ take doesn’t discount ADUs as a helpful contribution, but it’s also realistic: Napa needs more housing, and it needs to look at a different kinds of options. She specifically cites mixed-use areas or downtown as potential pathways that could be explored.

Feel free to reach Carly Graf at @carlykgraf, or (713)-817-4692.

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

City of Napa reporter

Carly Graf covers Napa city government and community issues. She received her master’s degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. She most recently worked for a news outlet in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News