The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in the meeting chambers
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors plans to approve two ADU models, also known as backyard homes or in-law units, in the county's unincorporated urban areas. File photo.

“Backyard homes” are about to get easier and faster to build for residents living in unincorporated Santa Clara County.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously signed off on providing residents within its jurisdiction two sets of pre-approved plans for building accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as granny flats or in-law units, on their residential property by the end of the year. One model is 800 square feet and another is 1,200 square feet. Officials said the streamlined process could make major inroads toward opening up more affordable housing supply in the highly expensive region.

It could also rake in more property tax revenue — a shortage of which has fueled a $250 million budget deficit that county leaders must absorb this year. In future years, the issue could force cuts to critical safety net programs and services.

“We definitely will be generating additional tax revenue,” Supervisor Otto Lee, who has led the discussion, said at the meeting.

Residents can still build ADUs without pre-approved plans, but it’s a lengthier process since county employees have to review applications on a case-by-case basis. Changing that could save residents and the county time and money.

San Jose, the largest city in the county, has already taken up the idea with a different approach: launching a set of 23 pre-approved construction contractors in 2019, where permits for standardized construction plans can be approved within an estimated three months after submission. The projects must start construction within 12 months of approval, or the permit will expire. City officials say less than 1% of permits expire.

San Jose’s program has seen roughly 1,400 backyard homes built in the last five years, Mayor Matt Mahan said in a letter to county supervisors.

“ADUs represent a significant proportion of San Jose’s production of housing that is affordable by design,” Mahan wrote. “This number represents about 23% of San Jose’s new housing stock over that time frame.”

For the last nine months, the county’s Planning and Development Department has been working on the pre-approved plans with $300,000 in federal grant funds. The plans are expected to be posted publicly by December. Lee, calling on the county to move faster, requested an update from the department in September.

Some supervisors wondered whether the county could simply use other cities’ pre-approved designs, or follow San Jose’s model by using a set of pre-approved manufacturers for models like prefabricated homes. County employees responded that using other cities’ pre-approved designs might legally obligate them to pay the architects who made them and that pre-approved manufacturers would be a next step. For now, the 800- and 1,200-square-foot designs are what they’re sticking to.

The plans would only apply to urban lots, and not rural areas which generally tend to have less access to required power, water and sewage infrastructure.

That raised more questions for Supervisor Sylvia Arenas, whose District 1 spans South County’s crops and fields — and farmworker communities. She questioned whether there are opportunities to connect unincorporated rural residents with nearby cities’ infrastructure.

“I’m concerned we might leave some folks out,” Arenas said at the meeting. “I know water and sewage is a big issue we’re already dealing with quite a bit around farmworker housing.”

Arenas also questioned whether the county could impose restrictions on backyard homes to keep the rents at affordable rates.

“We’re looking into the limitations and legality of that,” Planning and Development Director Jacqueline Onciano said.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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