New California Laws for 2020 Expand Homeowners' Rights to Build Accessory Dwelling Units

New California laws, AB68, AB 881 and SB 13, expand homeowners' rights to build accessory dwelling units on their single-family properties starting in 2020.


In order to bring down sky-high California housing costs, and make living here affordable for more people, the legislature recently passed three bills. The overall intention is to sweep aside cities' or other local jurisdictions' permit restrictions, which can impede single-family property owners' ability to construct accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as in-law apartments or granny flats.

Many restrictive rules are in existence in various cities and other jurisdictions in California. For example, some areas refuse to allow garage conversions, at least without replacing the lost parking space within the property (off-street). Some require owner-occupancy of the property before one can build an ADU.

The three new, overlapping, and controversial laws are as follows:

Assembly Bill 68 expands the categories of ADUs that cities must approve without applying local development standards, so as to include an 800-square-foot detached ADU that's at least 16 feet high with four-foot side and rear yard setbacks. In addition, it prohibits limits on lot coverage, floor area ratio, open space, and minimum lot size if they forestall ADU construction meeting those specifications. The new law also requires cities to allow “junior ADUs” in addition to the main ADU. And it says that permits for ADUs on lots with existing structures must be approved or denied within 60 days.

Assembly Bill 881 eliminates minimum lot-size and owner-occupancy requirements and stops jurisdictions from setting a maximum square footage requirement for ADUs less than 850 square feet, or 1,000 square feet if the ADU has more than one bedroom. It also prohibits requiring setbacks for conversions of existing garage or mandating that on-site new parking space be found. This will allow ADUs in some cities to be much larger than previously allowed.

Senate Bill 13 takes away local agencies’ ability to require owner-occupancy for five years, and won't let them charge impact fees for ADUs under 750 square feet. For larger ADUs, it creates a tiered fee structure based on size.The new law also shortens the application approval time frame, creates an avenue to get unpermitted ADUs up to code, and beefs up enforcement so that the state can make sure that localities are following the new law.

How this will all play out remains to be seen. While proponents look forward to a backyard building boom, critics worry that the net result will be to incentivize corporate, investor ownership of single-family properties, thus having the reverse effect of that intended, by pushing more people out of home ownership.

Effective Date: January 1, 2020.