Los Angeles is one step closer to approving its own set of rules for accessory dwelling units.
The city’s planning commission recommended local guidelines Thursday that incorporate a ban on ADUs in a few hillside areas, including some of LA’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
The rules supplement a new state law that made the small backyard dwellings—otherwise known as back houses, granny flats, or in-law units—easier for most homeowners to construct.
But at least one member of the City Council—which has yet to vote on the proposed rules—is not on board with the regulations approved by the commission Thursday.
At issue is whether and where ADUs should be allowed in hillside areas, where grading for new construction is difficult and the risk of fire is often higher.
In 2016, the commission proposed that hillside units be permitted within a half-mile of a transit stop. The City Council’s planning and land use management committee vetoed that suggestion a few months later, calling instead for a blanket ban on ADUs in hillside areas.
Emma Howard, senior planning deputy for Councilmember David Ryu, told the commission Thursday that’s still the option that Ryu, who represents hillside areas like the Hollywood Hills and Sherman Oaks, is pushing for.
Howard said that prohibiting ADUs in hillside areas would be a “common-sense safety measure” the city should commit to after the destructive Woolsey Fire, which burned 1,500 structures earlier this month (most outside of Los Angeles city limits).
But the land classified as hillside area in Los Angeles is vast, and commissioners argued that a blanket ban on ADU development in those zones would be an unreasonable imposition on homeowners living in places like Northeast Los Angeles, where fires are less common and most streets are easily accessible to emergency vehicles.
“I can’t tell people in Cypress park who want to build a house for their grandmother not to build that ADU,” said commission president Samantha Millman.
The commissioners settled on an ADU ban that would, at least initially, apply only to a handful of neighborhoods, including Bel Air, Laurel Canyon, and the Bird Streets. These areas are subject to special hillside construction regulations, which the commission decided should prevent homeowners from building ADUs there.
Similar regulations could eventually be applied to other neighborhoods, barring ADUs there as well. In the meantime, other hillside areas, from San Pedro to Sylmar, would be fair game.
According to estimates from the planning department, nearly 30 percent of LA’s single-family homes are located in hillside areas, from Highland Park to Bel Air. It’s not clear how many of the properties in those areas satisfy state requirements for ADU construction, but Cover, a company that manufactures prefabricated ADUs, estimates that a blanket ban could impact 82,000 homeowners.
“What I don’t understand is why it’s okay to expand houses on hillsides, remodel them, make them more luxurious—but it’s not okay to build units that could possibly add affordable housing,” said commissioner Veronica Padilla-Campos.
The city has been fine-tuning its ADU rules since 2016, when state legislation made it possible for more California homeowners to construct the units. Since then, Angelenos have rushed to build the dwellings. According to the planning department, more than 7,700 homeowners have applied to build ADUs since the state law went into effect in 2017.
In the two years before that, the city received just 536 applications.
A report from planning staffers indicates that only 7 percent of ADUs built in 2017 were constructed in hillside areas.
But members of the commission said Thursday that, in spite of fire safety concerns, they wanted to ensure they weren’t taking away housing options from residents of hillside areas.
“Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good here,” said Millman.