Building an ADU in L.A.

In the story of the resurgence of permitted ADUs in the US, Los Angeles, California is poised to be the next tip of the spear.

This chart of ADU permits issued by the City of L.A. from 2013-2017 tells a story of moderate ADU growth over the last 14 years.

Till now.

The term “ADU” probably means very little to most Angeleños up to this point. But, 2017 will likely be the year that ADUs start become part of the common real estate vernacular of Los Angeles homeowners.

On January 1st, 2017, ADU legislation was passed at the state level in California, forcing cities to amend their ADU code to comply with state law. The stated intent was as follows,

“The Bill makes modifications to remove the most significant local barriers to ADUs to carry out the stated intent of existing law (AB 1866) which already states second units are to be encouraged with ministerial approvals by making the following changes”.

These laws, AB-2299 and SB-1069, compel Californians cities to relax off-street parking requirements for ADUs and to eliminate utility connection fees. Historically, and even since the passage of AB 1866 in 2003, which compelled cities to allow ADUs by right, cities have thrown roadblocks in the way of ADU development. In some cases, these roadblocks were unintentional, and in other cases, they may have deliberate. Nonetheless, the state’s attempts in 2003 to allow ADUs accomplished little to actually spur their development. Cities everywhere maintained restrictive rules around parking, setbacks, size limits, and disproportionate utility connection fees for ADUs. The passage of AB-2299 and SB-1069 in 2017 was California’s way of ensuring that its cities were actually following the intent of the 2003 state law.

Now that we have covered what prompted a code change this year, let’s assess this L.A. permit rate more carefully.

This number of permits issued so far in the first quarter of 2017, 174 permits was three times more than the number of permits issued in any other quarter in L.A’s history.  In 2016, only 35.5 ADUs were permitted by this same point in the year on average.

If you take the total number of permits issued by year, then derive a quarterly average, and put those quarterly average permit numbers into a graph, this is what you get.


Growth of ADU permits

If L.A. were to keep permitting ADUs at that first quarter 2017 rate, it could suddenly become the national leader in ADU development, seemingly overnight.

In all likelihood, a latent backlog of ADU permit seekers rushed through the permitting in the first quarter of 2017, and the following quarters of 2017 will not match that exceptional spike.

However, I’ll be keeping my eyes on these L.A. development rates in the coming quarters and years. This figure serves as an indicator for the potential of ADUs to be a viable and scalable housing form for the City. Unless the City of L.A. decided to throw up more roadblocks to permitted ADU development, ADUs may become a very significant housing phenomena there in the next five years.  

L.A. has had a documented history of ADUs, though it hasn’t exactly been a national reputation that the City has sought. Unpermitted, or informal ADUs, have been developed in L.A. en masse for decades. The presence of tens of thousands of informal garage conversion ADUs was first documented publicly by the L.A Times in 1987. The informal ADU phenomena is not unique to L.A; It just happens to have been well documented there. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of informal ADUs exist in most major US cities.

The underground presence of informal ADUs in L.A served as an indication of the interest and demand for ADUs. Under the new state law, ADU developers can finally come out of the closet.

Permitted ADU development in L.A. is poised to surge due to its high land values, strong rental market, lack of affordable housing, and geographic dominance of residential zones. Due to state laws, the most problematic poison pill regulations in L.A. have been removed. Along with the rest of California, the City has now eliminated its restrictive off street parking requirements. But, unlike many cities in California, L.A. does not have owner occupancy requirements.

These regulatory factors, as well as the current regulatory allowance for detached new construction ADUs, place the City in a position to see a dramatic surge in development.

To learn more about the recent history of unpermitted ADUs and the impacts in LA of California’s recent state legislation, I caught up with a colorful local figure, Ira Belgrade, who has taken up ADUs with outspoken passion ever since being caught by the City with his own unpermitted ADU back in 2013.

Ira says he’s the person in the city of LA to permit an unpermitted unit under California’s new state ADU laws which went into effect on January 1st, 2017. I learned about Ira from a colleague in L.A., and read about his tale in this Business Insider article, but decided to dive deeper into his intriguing saga in an interview on a recent trip to L.A.  

Ira Belgrade

Interview with Ira Belgrade: The embattled first ADU permittee in LA after the CA ADU code change

Kol: Tell me about what this structure was before it was an ADU, and what prompted you to develop an ADU from it.

Ira: I built this as a Garage/Rec. Room to use as my office.  I had a home business with my wife and shortly after we finished construction, my wife died suddenly.  That threw my life into turmoil.  I had a two and a half year old son, my business fell apart and I didn’t want to lose my house.  I thought, well, wait a minute, if I could rent this out…

I had tried making this an ADU before I’d started building it and the City of L.A. wouldn’t allow it then. When I went back again after I’d built the office to try and try and convert it, they said my lot size was too small, that it had to be 7,500 sq ft. So, that’s when I just said to myself, “I’m doing it”.

The one thing I did do, was to make sure that I built everything up to code. I gotta tell you, I’m seeing people now who did things not up to code, and that’s gonna run you money. So, I made sure everything was up code. Also, this was a legal footprint. The building itself was legal. And, I’m seeing people now who’ve done illegal construction of footprints. So, once you’ve changed a footprint illegally, that’s a whole new can of worms. I know one guy who has to tear down walls now to prove structure. He’s got to take things down and they’ve got to get inside. They’ve got to get into footings! The City doesn’t doesn’t know what’s down there.

If you have a legally existing structure, and you’re going to convert it, make sure that you’re converting everything up to code.….and now you can get a permit to do it!

Ira's ADU

Kol: When you first converted your garage to an ADU in 2009, did you know others who had built informal ADUs on their property?

Ira: Yes, I did, and I knew some people who rented them out. I’ve known people over the years who did that, and they'd go to great lengths to try to make everyone think it’s not an ADU, like having faux garage doors or not talking about it in front of neighbors. These non-permitted ADUs are all over the city. UCLA estimated there’s 50,000 unpermitted units.

Kol: Were you scared sinking money into such a big project, knowing that you could you get red flagged at any point?

Ira: I had no choice. 

It was worth the gamble. 

Someone, four years after I built the ADU, reported me as having an illegal rental unit. I’m still not sure who it was. I’ve talked to most of my neighbors. Maybe it was a neighbor on the street, or it could have been a developer. The house next door was built by a developer, and it could have been him. I had words with him over the course of a year, you know. I don’t know who it was, because it’s anonymous, but when I looked it up online, what I found out was that it took slightly over a year to get to me from the time it was reported.

It was interesting because 10-15 years ago, this City used to have "the building police". Especially in neighborhoods like this, more affluent areas, inspectors would go up and down the streets, looking for construction, and ask “Where’s your permit?” There was a lot of that.

L.A. can’t afford that anymore. So, now it’s when they knowingly see something, or someone reports someone. 

Kol: Many people are interested in converting an unpermitted ADU to a permitted ADU, but they ultimately learn that they can’t do it for one reason or another. Yet you did it once the ne regulation passed. Under the new CA code, what enabled you to legalize it that you couldn’t do before?

Ira: This is the main, clear difference.  Now, in the state of California, it’s nothing money can’t fix. Before the California legislation, money couldn’t fix it, or money couldn’t be guaranteed to fix it.  It was either, ‘restore it to what it was’, ‘tear it down’, or ‘apply for a variance, and good luck’. 

Now a homeowner can make any necessary changes or adjustments to bring the unit up to code.  Also, if you’ve converted an existing garage and a city, like L.A., has a covered parking requirement for the main house, you no longer are required to replace that covered parking structure. You can park those cars, in tandem, on your driveway. You also don’t need parking for the ADU itself if you’ve converted an existing garage or if you live within a half mile of a transit stop.

Kol: What was your experience like working with the City on legalizing your ADU in January of 2017?

Ira: Well, I’m not someone who might be the typical person. They all knew me. They were all treading very lightly. Because I was one of the first ones to legalize their ADU under the new code, one of the senior supervisors came out to my place with two inspectors and they basically used me as their teaching guide. They told me that they were gonna do that since I was the first one- They wanted to be sure they were following the new regulations correctly.

They went through everything very thoroughly. They wanted to see inside my wall to make sure that there was insulation. That was easy because I had built in speaker wiring that had a plate cover over it. I thought I was going to have to drill holes in the wall but I just unscrewed the plate cover and they could see the insulation.

I had put in a small window in the downstairs bathroom within the side setback area. Since I didn’t have the required five feet of setback between my property and my neighbors property, I had to seal up the window. I could have put in a fire-rated window, but they don’t open, so what was the point of that so I chose to seal it up. That was a minor bit of construction work.

Kol: Do you think your situation is transferable to others? Why (not)?

Ira: Absolutely. There’s so many people out there with unpermitted ADUs. And, a lot of them are scared. They don’t want to get caught.

Even now, so many people don’t even know the new California laws exist. I’m still explaining to people how these laws work. But, even then, it’s still a big process. It’s still not a simple process. It’s not like, “Oh, we have a new law, I can just go down to the City and get a permit.”

You’re going through the process of building a new house. That’s what you’re doing. It’s still a process and it’s going to be time consuming, and very confusing to people.

My permits were $3,300, and I had a shed that I had to take down that was attached to the building. Sorry to see it go, but it was just a shed, you know?

Think about the value that people will get by legalizing their accessory dwelling units. But, I think people are still afraid. There’s people who absolutely depend on the income they get. I know people like that. They’re afraid to go down the road of legalizing their unpermitted ADU. It’s going to be a long time before people get into the mentality that they can do this, and they don’t have to be worried about it.

Kol: If others live in areas with restrictive ADU regulations, what steps would you recommend they consider taking if they need to build an ADU for one reason or another?

Ira: Become an activist.

I don’t know how anyone builds an entire structure without anyone noticing. I don’t know what they should do in that situation.

In 2016, the White House published an interesting read: a housing book where they talked about how local zoning regulations are the biggest impediment to creating more housing in this country. That’s what it comes down to.

What I’ve learned is that people who buy up land, create local zoning regulations to suit themselves for their particular area.

We have a housing shortage. How are we going to create more housing?

This land is already here. This is easy. You’re not buying new land.

Kol: Now that ADUs are easier to build in L.A. due the CA ADU bills that recently passed, what would you like to see happening with ADUs in L.A.?

Ira: That’s an easy answer. Butt the fuck out.

That’s what I’d like see to happen. I’d like the City to let it go and let the state laws rule. We don’t need any more ordinances here. We don’t need any more regulations. State law is just fine. Let it go.

I’d like to see the City of Los Angeles embrace state law, and do what the state suggested municipalities do (but L.A. never did) back when they had state law AB 1866, the original ADU law from 2003, where they encouraged municipalities to create pamphlets on how to build ADUs.

Make my house the poster house for ADUs in this city.

They’re never gonna do it. They’re going to say, ‘We don’t have the money for that.’ That’s what they’re going to say. But, that’s what I like them to do. I’d like to see them embrace our new AB 2299 and SB 1069, the new accessory dwelling unit laws. Embrace them. And, encourage people to build them. And, do everything they can to do so. And have the City Council stop cow-towing to a generation that’s out of touch.

Kol: Do you think that it’s good to have the state in charge of these zoning codes, a role that’s typically delegated to local jurisdictions?

Ira: Yeah, They've had plenty of time to do it themselves. Some of the City Council members are like, ‘This is an intrusion into our City’s rights to create our own zoning laws.’

You know, it’s like, ‘You haven’t been able to do this for generations. Ok? You’ve proved it. Ok?

And, AB 1866 didn’t work because there was too many loopholes that allowed all these municipalities throughout the state to put in these huge restrictions like Pasenda with 15,000 sq ft lot size minimums with a maximum cap of 20 units permitted in a year. Ok, come on. You’re not trying to build ADUs. You’re trying to discourage people from building ADUs.

Sometimes, higher government needs to intervene. I mean, if higher government didn’t intervene, would we have civil rights? We’d still have segregated education.

Yeah, the government sometimes has to intervene, because local government just can’t get the job done because of local B.S. I mean, that’s what it comes down to.