A housing shortage in San Mateo County has been a lasting issue on the minds of officials, nonprofits and residents alike, inspiring the creation of a pilot program aimed at assisting homeowners in adding a second unit to their homes. 

“Housing is one of the key initiatives going on. We continue to see the importance in increasing housing including during the pandemic,” said Effie Lilionis Verducci, the sustainability program manager with the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability. 

The county, in partnership with Hello Housing, a nonprofit organization focused on developing housing programs for underserved communities, launched Bright in Your Own Backyard, a one-stop-shop initiative to make developing an accessory dwelling unit more approachable. 

“The project offers homeowners with resources to build an ADU and our theory of change is homeowners who don’t have experience with renovation probably need help to make it a reality,” said Hello Housing Special Project Manager Lin A. Chin. 

An ADU can range in size and uses, some being standalone structures while others act as an extension to existing homes. Both Chin and Verducci said now more than ever, homeowners are considering taking on ADU projects. 

“From the county perspective, what we’re hearing that hasn’t been a surprise is that folks are more reluctant to place families in senior homes. Second unit motivators have grown stronger,” said Verducci. 

While bringing family members closer may be a drawing factor for homeowners considering development, Verducci said the financial implications may make some think twice. 

“The financial piece is less understood because of the financial implications from shelter-in-place orders. It’s unclear on how that will affect how people could afford constructions,” said Verducci. 

Chin, who said her team has made calls to preCOVID applicants said while some may be apprehensive to take the big leap, many were more motivated than before to start breaking ground. 

“In late March we realized folks who applied were probably not as affected financially. We weren’t sure how much their lives had changed,” said Chin. “A lot were still really motivated to build an ADU, if anything more motivated. We’re not shocked but more people who submitted seemed more interested than we had thought.” 

Residents in selected pilot cities Pacifica, East Palo Alto, Redwood City and unincorporated areas of San Mateo County can apply for the program by June 1 before being entered into a lottery. Other requirements include homeowners live in their homes after construction is completed and the other unit must be rented out for a minimum of three years. 

Applicants accepted into the pilot project would receive up to 100 hours of development guidance including assistance with calculating costs, designing a plan, project management and training on how to become a landlord. Chin recommends applicants have at least $50,000 on hand when applying but costs of development can vary greatly depending on individual project goals. 

“Part of our marching orders are to be flexible and nimble,” she said. 

Jeanie Lundell, a 71-year-old Redwood City resident, has lived in her ADU for eight years. Modeled as a cottage, her home sits on a half-acre lot she shares with her son, an attorney in San Jose, daughter-in-law, an assistant principal in the county, and their two sons, ages 11 and 13. 

Lundell, who lived in Pleasanton, said the death of her husband in 2010 inspired her son who lived in Mountain View at the time, to suggest she move into a living situation with him and his family. They made the move eight years ago to the month and Lundell had one word to describe the experience, wonderful. 

“Just to be able to sit at the end of the day and enjoy after work time and dinner together is really nice,” she said.

Lundell also said she would have appreciated a program like Bright in your Backyard but raised concerns about how long the process could take. As for life in her ADU in the age of coronavirus, she said she has enjoyed being so close to her grandchildren. 

“For this reason, I’m already here and it’s less anxiety inducing because we’re not worried about how the others are doing,” she said. 

By the end of the program, officials aim to have 16 units completed with four in each participating city though final projects may vary in size and location depending on the sizes proposed and unforeseen pandemic related hurdles. 

This is one of many efforts by the county to lower its jobs-housing gap which is currently one housing unit to 11 jobs. Regionally, Verducci said that ratio is 1:8. Both Verducci and Chin said the pilot program is about testing out how the program can create housing equity in San Mateo County. 

“Project management safeguards public investment. We’re thinking about equity and how we can play a role in making sure ADUs don’t just benefit higher income communities,” said Chin. 

Visit hellobright.org/one-stop-shop for more information about the Bright in Your Own Backyard initiative.

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