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Little House Could Mean Big Environmental and Housing Gains

Jan. 9, 2011

Little House Could Mean Big Environmental and Housing Gains

Backers of green friendly second unit in Berkeley see potential in BART station neighborhoods.

Betty Buginas

Politicians, environmentalists, academics,  builders  and  the curious packed a tiny house and the yard surrounding it in West Berkeley Saturday to talk about what many of them said could be the next big thing for communities like El Cerrito.

Among those gathered were El Cerrito Mayor Ann Cheng, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, state Senator Loni Hancock  and Jeremy Madsen, the executive director of Greenbelt Alliance.

They were there to tour, in shifts, a 420-square-foot cottage built in the backyard of Karen Chapple, associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of California Berkeley and faculty director of the school’s Center for Community Innovation.

Those behind the $98,000 unit call it a “zero net energy cottage,” a goal achieved primarily by installing extra thick insulation and installing solar panels on the single-family home that shares the lot. But the project incorporates other green practices as well, like locating near transit and utilizing a metal roof with an expected lifespan of 100 years that has both been made partly from recycled materials and is itself recyclable.

Kevin Casey, a recent UC business MBA whose New Avenue Homes was responsible for the construction of the building,  says what makes his company stand apart is that it takes care of everything – design, construction, permitting, and finance.  He said it is working on a way for homeowners who wouldn’t otherwise be able to qualify for a loan to finance a second unit.

Addressing the crowd, Chapple called it  “the beginning of a movement,” and Madsen said it will “make the Bay Area a better place to live” and serve as a “model for the entire country.” Supporters say adding this kind of unit provides a way to provide additional housing in an Earth-friendly way, without compromising the character of neighborhoods.

Mayors Bates and Cheng, while clearly personally excited about the possibilities, acknowledged the political realities.

Bates, who served in the state Assembly for 20 years, noted, “I introduced a bill to allow second buildings. It was so controversial,” though he noted it was later adopted into law. Cities, however, set requirements for second units such as parking spaces and where they can be built in relation to the property line that could make it difficult for many homeowners to add a second unit.

Bates said there will be barriers, primarily neighbors concerned about parking, but that they can be overcome. For example, he said, the city could have parking permits but not grant them for smaller units. One change Berkeley has already made, he noted, is allowing parking spaces to be one behind the other.
“We’ve got to use our heads to figure out how to solve this,” he said. “What better way to green Berkeley?”

Following Bates, Cheng said, “El Cerrito is also very green.” She noted that she is an urban planner by trade and that our area is fortunate to have the benefit of the UC Berkeley resources that went into coming up with this model second unit. But, she asked, “What is the political reality?”

In a community of primarily single-family homes like El Cerrito, she said, second units are a way to provide more housing, and income for seniors so they can “age in place.”

Hancock spoke briefly, saying, “This has been a dream of mine for years” and that it is a great way for homeowners to share the space they have. She said if the cities can tackle the parking issue, perhaps the state can help with financing.

In an interview earlier in the day, Cheng said that locating the units near BART stations could encourage use of mass transit, which would help us to develop a better transit system.

“I really hope people will be open and see it as a climate change issue,” she said.

The additional units, she said, could also provide a boost to El Cerrito’s economy through the purchase of building materials locally, creation of jobs, and increased traffic for local businesses.

Cheng said in February UC students will survey by mail El Cerrito residents who live within about a 10-minute walk of the city’s BART stations to find out what interest there is in adding second dwellings on single-family lots. She said they will also investigate how much interest there is in modifying requirements such as parking, setback, and minimum lot size, and whether the presence of more City CarShare  locations in single-family neighborhoods would influence people’s positions. Researchers will also study maps and aerial photos to determine how many properties might be suitable for a second unit under existing regulations and how many might be possible with modifications to the rules.

She said El Cerrito is fortunate to be able to have the university’s expertise and help in gathering this data.  El Cerrito is one of the communities the university is interested in because its two BART stations are near single-family homes.

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