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Los Angeles debating size of 'granny flats' and where to allow them

Granny flats are in legal limbo after a LA County Superior Court judge ruled against a homeowner who built a second unit on his property. (not pictured)
Netsumo via Flickr
Los Angeles is moving to make it easier to build "granny flats," the second units often used for in-laws and other relatives.

Los Angeles officials agree that "granny flats" — the second units homeowners often use for relatives — are a way to ease the city's housing crunch, but they're at odds over how large the units should be.

City Councilmember Gil Cedillo has proposed the city adopt the state's maximum size of 1,200 square feet for these backyard units. That size provides enough space for two bedrooms. But Council President Herb Wesson and other members want that maximum halved for Los Angeles.

Another concern is that some neighborhoods are less equipped to handle more second units than others. A planner in Councilmember Paul Koretz's West Los Angeles office made this argument before the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee on Tuesday.

"We believe that one size does not fit all," said senior planning deputy Faisal Alserri.

The City Council will take up the issue in the coming weeks. A proposed ordinance will contain Cedillo's preference for a 1,200 square foot maximum for the granny flats and would ban the units from hillsides.

Moveable "tiny homes" on wheels, typically less than 500 square feet, would also be considered as second units under an amendment made to the proposal. The change came after residents urged the council's planning committee to allow the tiny homes, given the advantage of their small size and relative affordability.

Debate over secondary units comes after the state this year relaxed rules for building granny flats around California.

The state set the 1,200-square-foot maximum for second units but cities can decide if they want a lower limit. Until the city adopts a new ordinance, it must default to the state rules.

Before the state rules took effect this year, the permitting of granny flats in Los Angeles had been temporarily on hold following a lawsuit. The plaintiffs were several West L.A. residents upset about the city's 2010 decision to follow the state's more liberal granny flats law rather than the city's stricter ordinance. 

A ruling by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant last year halted the issuance of second unit permits, forcing some homeowners to freeze plans for backyard units.

Those homeowners can get permits again now that the state rules are in place. Once the city requirements take effect, homeowners will likely have stricter guidelines to follow.

The city has to balance the need for more affordable housing while protecting "the character of single-family neighborhoods," said Ken Bernstein, the city's principal planner.

"There is a concern in many neighborhoods that are characterized by small homes that the second unit could dwarf the main house," Bernstein said.