Commentary | On the Housing Element, ADUs, and residential zones

The Piedmont Planning Department is in the final stages of developing the city’s Housing Element, the city’s 8-year plan for accommodating new housing in Piedmont. The City is required to add 587 units by 2031 under regional authority. The draft plan proposes two mechanisms for achieving that goal — changes to rules that regulate the development of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and changes to city zoning and zones to permit the development of multi-family housing on public property. [The draft Housing Element is available HERE.]

Most Piedmont residents live in Zone A — single family residential, the intent of which is to:

  • Protect residents from the harmful effects of excessive noise, light deprivation, intrusions on privacy, overcrowding, excessive traffic, insufficient parking, blockage of significant views, and other adverse environmental impacts.
  • Maintain openness and areas of vegetation between residences to enhance a healthy environment.
  • Achieve design compatibility between additions, remodeling and other new construction by establishing development standards.

Unlike the regulations that homeowners are subject to when remodeling their homes, the regulations for ADU development are set by the state and much of the intent of Zone A is ignored by those ADU rules. The state has determined that local government can only propose objective standards for ADUs such as height and setback and not subjective standards such as privacy, view and parking. From the Department of Housing and Community Development:

“ADUs must be considered, approved, and permitted ministerially, without discretionary action. Development and other decision-making standards must be sufficiently objective to allow for ministerial review. Examples include numeric and fixed standards such as heights or setbacks, or design standards such as colors or materials. Subjective standards require judgement and can be interpreted in multiple ways such as privacy, compatibility with neighboring properties or promoting harmony and balance in the community; subjective standards shall not be imposed for ADU development. Therefore, privacy standards would not be objective. HCD does not have benchmarks or criterion for privacy but we recommend working with your local community and planning department.”

In the draft Housing Element, the Planning Department is proposing to raise the allowable height limits of ADUs from 16 feet to 18 feet and in some cases 22 feet. Planning is also proposing to eliminate the requirement that the ADU be compatible with the main house. For example, a Tudor house with gable roof can install a Mediterranean bungalow with a flat roof with a 4-6 foot setback from the property line.  

Piedmont has always balanced home remodels with protections of neighbors’ light, view and privacy and neighborhood compatibility, so it is disappointing to see the Planning Department conceding the only tools it has for protecting the residential zone from the impacts of ADUs — height and design compatibility. Planning claims these changes are needed to foster more ADU development in Piedmont to meet housing goals, but these changes have obvious detrimental impacts on neighboring properties. 

Could the Planning Department not find other incentives for developing ADUs? For example, could not the FAR for the property be lowered or more square footage allowed for the ADU? These incentives would have less impact on neighboring properties than what Planning is proposing and would encourage better housing at that. There are likely tax incentives for developers of ADUs to rent to low-income tenants that would have no impact on neighboring properties – with record tax revenues, the City can afford it.

The Housing Element needs to do a better job of integrating ADU development with the residential character of Zone A.

Planning’s deference to ADU development begs the question — will Planning protect the light, view, and privacy of ADUs when neighboring properties submit remodel applications for their homes?

The deadline for comments on the draft Housing Element is Nov. 19. Visit Housing Element Update — Piedmont Housing Element for details on the Housing Element and to submit comments. There is a Dec. 2 Zoom workshop for the public comment on the Housing Element as well.

8 thoughts on “Commentary | On the Housing Element, ADUs, and residential zones

    • For ADU, all residential zones are eligible. I think the city is taking two approaches to locating affordable housing sites. One is to work with an third party to develop housing on public land in Piedmont. The city will conduct a search for suitable sites in the coming year. The other approach is to work with developers in the multi-use/multi family zones on Grand/Linda and in the civic center. I believe bonus densities would be granted to developers that provide some portion of affordable housing in new buildings.

  1. Very helpful discussion between Andrea and Garrett. I am curious why there is so little mention of SB9 in the HE discussion as that recent legislation seems the best way to aid Piedmont in meeting its RHNA mandate and retaining the inherent character of Piedmont.

    • Hi Rick –

      SB 9 does create opportunities for housing in Piedmont and all similar jurisdictions and areas that have been zoned single-family residential. It allows for ministerial approval two units per lot, and also subdivision of each lot into two lots, if some conditions are met (for example the resulting lots cannot be smaller than 1,200 square feet). So, potentially up to four units could be created on lots where until now there’s been only one. That’s hopefully going to help address the state’s housing crisis…

      But, the law doesn’t give much guidance on how to achieve these extra units, other than saying that they need to be approved ministerially, that is, without subjective discretionary review and conditions (objective standards are allowed, though). So there are still many unresolved questions about how it will play out. For example, how will people provide access from the new lot to the right of way? How will homeowners finance these construction projects? Will there be a market to undertake these risks? Many questions remain unresolved. In the case of Piedmont, as far as I know (although I may have missed it) the City hasn’t announced how it intends to implement the law… it becomes effective on Jan 1.

      In any case, for these reasons, some of the initial studies and reports on SB 9 (such as one by the Terner Center in UC Berkeley) have concluded that the law, while ambitious, may not produce too many units in the end.

      Regarding the Housing Element, the City needs to show that it can remove obstacles to housing production, for example by rezoning to allow more density. The law requires that the City’s estimates of how many units its rezoning will yield be based on realistic assumptions, based on past production. So, because SB 9 is so new and there is significant uncertainty as to its implementation, it’s unlikely that the City could just say “we”ll produce 4 units on every lot”, and thus meet (and surpass) its 587 allocation. It’s not as simple as that – otherwise we’d be done! 🙂

      Also, SB 9 has no affordability requirements, and the HE does require that the City plan for a substantial amount of very low, low, and moderately priced affordable housing, based on the income of the potential residents as compared to the Area Median Income (AMI). So even if we could do that simple math it wouldn’t get us there…

      Instead, for the HE it is likely that the City will need to take a hard look at multiple strategies and policies to achieve its allocation, including allowing small density increases like SB 9, -plexes, multi-family buildings, etc. But, the process is still in its very early stages, so nothing’s been decided yet, for sure. Stay tuned and come to the Dec 2 workshop!


  2. Thanks Andrea for the clarification about the Housing Element. Lot of balls in the air regarding new housing for Piedmont – ADU expansion, affordable housing sites, zone changes. I assume “Winter of 2022” means no earlier than December 2022 for HE adoption by Council?

    Timeline aside, the recommendations of the consultant need a robust discussion within the community. Besides the impact on privacy, I think the effectiveness of ADU at addressing city housing needs should be part of that discussion. There’s considerable uncertainty about whether or not ADU are being put on the rental market. To this discussion I would add an analysis of how SB 9 will effect the new housing targets for Piedmont.

    I may have missed it – are deed restrictions and financial incentives recommenced for the city’s ADU program? I heard those mentioned for the use A1 funds.

    The city does not have to build public housing but as I understand it to use A1 funds it has to designate public land for such development. The most likely way to do that is to rezone parkland like Blair Park.

    • Hello again-

      Yes, there needs to be a robust discussion for sure! That’s the intent of this period of review and comment, and there will be more opportunities. In fact, interested persons like us could ask for more time to review this particular document, if that would help… I happen to believe that they recommendations are a bit too prescriptive and may disincentivize housing production, but that’s the subject of another commentary! 🙂

      One more thing that’s important to note about the document is that it also has recommendations for objective standards for multi-family and mixed-use projects under zones C and D. These would be applicable to larger buildings, if any were proposed, in those zones, for example under the State Density Bonus law or SB 35. So it’s not just about ADUs.

      Re: why is the City trying to create objective standards and trying to meet some of its goals re: affordability at this time – I think that’s because under the current Housing Element (HE) it has similar obligations. So, this SB 2 Planning process comes at the tail end of the current HE. Some of these recommendations may carry over to the next HE, but some will likely need to be updated when the City adopts new zoning controls under the new, forthcoming HE.

      I totally agree that there should be more oversight and more mechanisms to ensure that ADUs are rented, and made affordable. And yes, this document does propose deed restrictions to ensure affordability of the ADUs for a period of time, in exchange for some incentives like that modest height increase.

      Regarding the use of the A1 funds, many knowledgeable persons who work in the affordable housing world agree that to make construction of an affordable housing multi-family building using these funds the City should partner and donate City land, but I understand that’s not the only way to do it. Blair Park has been mentioned as a potential site, because it’s a large site in town, but there are other sites being considered as well. But again, if the City had robust objective design standards, these may inform how to build in Blair Park in a way that’s sensitive to the environment, the neighbors, the oak trees, and preserves some of the open space. This again needs a robust discussion and will likely come up in the context of the upcoming HE update.

      Finally, it’s important to remember that all of these ideas for the upcoming HE will be studied in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) document that another consultant, Rincon, is preparing for the City. That process by definition is very public and participatory, and designed to make these changes in a way that takes into account and mitigates concerns about vehicular access, utilities, fire safety, etc.

      Thanks for engaging in this long conversation with me! Lots of things happening, for sure.

      • So final Housing Element adoption by City Council is slated for December 2022, after more workshops and Planning Commission hearings? I recall staff mentioning it needed to adopt new ordinances and change zoning to come in compliance with the Housing Element. Are those activities to occur in 2023?

        I thought A1 funds had to be used on projects on public land. Could the city use these funds on an affordable housing project in the current multi-use multi-family zone?

        Interesting thought about EIR. Could it override adoption of ministerial ADU policies? From what I know of EIR it does not address neighbor privacy.

  3. Hi Garrett –

    I just wanted to clarify a couple of things. First, the document that Lisa Wise (the City’s consultant) has prepared and that is open for public review and comment up to November 19 is not the Housing Element. It is just a document to offer recommendations on objective design guidelines for ADUs and multifamily buildings, prepared under an SB 2 Planning grant. Its recommendations may help inform the Housing Element work that the City is also undertaking, but that process is still in the future. Please visit for a full discussion on how the SB 2 work complements the Housing Element and other housing initiatives, such as the Measure A1 grant.

    As for the Housing Element work itself, it has just begun. On December 2 the city will host its first workshop on the topic. Then, throughout next year, the consultants will prepare the Housing Element policy recommendations and environmental review, with the goal to adopt the Housing Element in the winter of 2022, and submit for certification by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development in early 2023. So, there’s still lots of time to participate.

    Also, we need to be very clear that the City is definitively not required to add 587 units – under state law, it is merely required to make room, allow, or create the conditions, or remove obstacles that stand in the way for these units to be developed. In practice, in a jurisdiction that is built up, as Piedmont, this means rezoning to allow for more density. The City needs to do just that, it does not need to build any housing itself.

    Regarding the document that’s up for review now, it’s important that the City develop objective design standards because many state laws now require ministerial or expedited approval, where the City’s discretion to impose subjective requirements is limited. Objective standards, however, are allowed, and are a way to facilitate good planning while still following state law and promoting housing development. That’s the impetus behind this document. There may be specific details that not everyone will like, but the goal is a good one.

    Regarding the ADU recommendations, the document proposed relaxing the height limits (modestly, from 16 feet currently allowed under state law to 20 or 22 feet) as a way to address some of the constraints that have held back ADU production in the City, specifically, sloped terrains and the prevalence of pitched roofs on the primary residence. Relaxing heights a bit would make it easier to build ADUs, in that context. Most importantly, though, this recommendation seeks to incentivize the production of deed-restricted affordable ADUs. It is one of several proposals that the consultants have come up with to incentivize affordable ADUs in the City. Others include allowing an additional ADU, expanding conversion ADUs (for example for garage conversions), and financial incentives. In sum, it is part of a larger, very intentional effort to allow for more ADUs, and more affordable ADUs, in the City, as a way to start responding to the housing crisis and to our obligations under state law to make room for housing for diverse populations and income groups. The Housing Element work that’s ongoing will likely identify additional policies to meet this goal.



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