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The California Dream?Converting garages into homes

State law allows homeowners to convert garages into granny flats with little red tape, but some cities are apparently balking at the effort.

CAR-affiliated nonprofit sues Whittier for allegedly blocking conversions, city says on-street parking is a worry

Converting a garage into much-needed housing has become a controversial — and legal — issue in California.

Californians for Homeownership, a new nonprofit sponsored by the California Association of Realtors, has filed a lawsuit against the city of Whittier, claiming the Los Angeles suburb is blocking homeowners from converting existing garages and studios into livable space.

The city argues that converting garages into housing will create another problem — already crammed streets, especially in older neighborhoods, will need to handle even more vehicles.

The garage, the final (space) frontier

In 2016, California lawmakers approved a bill that allows homeowners throughout the state to develop so-called accessory dwelling units (ADU), such as a converted garage to a building a studio. Cities and counties cannot interfere with the state-law rights.

“CAR has long supported affordable housing through its legislative efforts and we want to make sure that cities comply,” says CAR president Jared Martin. “

Most cities are complying with the state law for these “casitas” or “in-law units,” says Matthew Gelfand, the in-house litigator for Californians for Homeownership.

“State law is simple: If you own a single-family home in California and your garage can be safely converted to housing, you are allowed to convert it.” — Matthew Gelfand, attorney for Californians for Homeownership

“State law is simple: If you own a single-family home in California and your garage can be safely converted to housing, you are allowed to convert it,” Gelfand says. “Whittier is one of a small number of cities that is refusing to comply with the state law. These cities hope that they can get away with their illegal behavior because homeowners are ill-equipped to sue.”

Whittier: ‘State law allows cities to require parking for the primary home within a garage’

California needs at least 2.5 million more homes, according to state housing officials. Converting a garage costs 75% to 90% less than building a single-family unit and can be done faster and with less red tape. Homeowners can have a caretaker, family members or friends live in the one-time garage or rent the space for additional income.

Whittier — a city of 87,000 near downtown Los Angeles — “supports the construction of accessory dwelling units in our community and we have seen many ADUs constructed over the past decade,” says Whittier assistant city manager Shannon DeLong. “However, the city believes state law allows cities to require parking for the primary home within a garage. Such a parking standard seeks to minimize over-congestion in our older neighborhood streets, which are already challenged with crowded street parking.”

DeLong adds the city is basically “built out,” but definitely recognizes the need for more housing. Whittier has approved 1,100 housing units during the past four years, including 750 homes as part of the mixed-use The Groves in Whittier development.

Feature photo of garage conversion courtesy of All America Builders

Ron Trujillo

Longtime business journalist-turned-public relations executive who enjoys reporting on residential real estate in his spare time. He can be reached at ron@calhomenews.com.