The unintended consequences of affordable housing policy in Nevada City

Imagine waking up to the sound of a tractor grading land in your next-door neighbor’s backyard, only to find out that a new unit — up to 800 square feet and 35 feet high — is being built as little as five feet from your own home. And you have no say in the matter.

Sound like the Great State of Texas? Nope, it’s little Nevada City, CA.

Yes, it could happen to you! This is the fallout of the Nevada City’s plan to bring more “affordable housing” to town, allowing “granny units” to be built without giving their neighbors enough opportunity to provide input (for example, “Could you please move it back a little.”) Only an in-house city review is required.

The City Council agreed to this “policy” too. It’s a classic case of government blaming the “other guy”: The City pointing to the State for its affordable housing mandates and the need to comply.

But the City needs to be much more thoughtful about how it implements the plan — and the unintended consequences on neighbors and neighborhoods.

It’s ironic, too, for a town that has such a “pinheaded” reputation for its city planning, whether it be the paint colors or the design.

As Robert Frost put it: “Good fences make good neighbors” Or “let the buyer beware”!

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

27 thoughts on “The unintended consequences of affordable housing policy in Nevada City”

  1. It’s clear we need to do a better job of implementing it rather than just checking off boxes on affordable housing. Neighborhoods (and neighbors) matter.

  2. I think the other way of looking at it is those who oppose all other avenues of new affordable housing within Nevada City have created a less than desirable scenario where this is going on. Just saying no to everything leads to something has to give and it sounds like new granny units is a small release point to the “No” crowd.

  3. In Vallejo you have to put up “story poles” representing your plans and changes your neighbors will face. If no one complains you’re good to go.

  4. I certainly support affordable housing in Nevada City, but believe in a transparent and democratic process, not a sneaky one. The City has let its neighborhoods down, just so it could check a box that, “yes,” it met its affordable housing goals on the aggregate. This is why people hate “progressives.”

  5. I am wondering what the process for getting a second unit approved actually is?

    I am assuming it means submitting plans (public), pulling a permit (public), and probably going to the Planning Commission according to the application above….and of course an approval by the Planning Commission can be appealed to the City Council…so its a public process…or am I missing something here?

    1. Steve,
      The neighbors have no input where the “granny” goes, including an 800-square-foot unit just five feet from their property line. There is no discussion of impact on neighboring properties, such as runoff from water, except for a vague reference to “lighting.” The approval is all handled at the staff level without a public hearing.

      1. But there is a public hearing. According to the process I posted directly from the Nevada City web site the project is required to go to the Planning Commission for approval.

        A neighbor could go to the Planning Commission and request a change, they could request design changes to ensure windows don’t align, they could request a change of the set back or siting, and the units need to meet design guidelines.

    2. Steve,
      That’s the farce of it all when it comes to democracy and transparency. There is NO public hearing. It is at the discretion of the Planning Director and the staff. QED.

      1. I actually asked a question. Is the process as defined above in the document I linked to from the City in place? Or has it been changed? The defense the process as including an approval by the Planning Commission. That is a public hearing. Has that been changed?

        I am a big fan of increased government transparency through technology….and support all permit applications being put on line immediately….

      2. Steve,
        As the document you linked to states, the process includes approval by the city planner, not the city planning commission. There is NO hearing. “PROCESS: Once a complete application has been submitted, it will be reviewed by the City Planner. If the application is approved, the City Planner will send a letter of approval and instructions on how to complete the recordation of any forms and/or the payment of fees.”

        The issue is not whether a “granny” is OK or not; it is the process for approval (i.e., no public hearing on an 800-square-foot structure that is up to 35 feet high).

      3. Mea culpa….you are correct and I am incorrect–only a variance from the standard requires Planning Commission approval–and that is indeed a low public process bar.

      4. Yes, that’s the problem: not the “granny” units themselves but the “low public process” bar, as you put it. The City has done a real disservice to neighborhoods and neighbor relations.

    1. Ben,
      I am in full disagreement with the “no” affordable housing contingent. But this “hole” in the process shocked me. It is not democratic or transparent.

  6. This is an old song here. When they were to build the Walgreen’s, there were folks who had great ideas about building new projects. From these pages came ideas like building to the sidewalk and having parking in the rear of the building. Street friendly.
    Now, when the city disregards reasonable house setbacks, that alone can cause considerable harm to neighborhoods, and neighbor relations.
    So—Instead, when you hear the neighbor sneeze, just say gesundheit, and pass them a kleenex out your window..

  7. Here is some info for you from the Nevada City Website,

    17.72.022  Application for Residential Second Dwelling Unit Permit
    A. A residential second dwelling unit permit is required to establish a new residential 
    second  dwelling  unit  in  any zoning district that allows a single­ family dwelling 
    unit as a permitted use. Any application for a residential second dwelling unit that 
    meets the  unit size  standards and  development standards contained  in  Sections
    17.72.024  and  17.72.026 shall be  approved  ministerially by the  city planner  by 
    applying the standards herein and without a public hearing.

    The State requires that the projects be approved “ministerially” if they meet the physical requirements the City uses for new construction. Ministerially means that the project cannot be denied if it meets existing development standards. Neither neighbors nor the Planning Commission get a say in the matter.
    You can always try to sue somebody…that seems to be a trend in these parts.

  8. I think what this ultimately comes down to is if you don’t like close proximity to your neighbors and their granny unit, buy a house on some acreage. You could build a fence but county code is 6 feet max for a solid fence ( I don’t know about Nevada City). However a hedge can be as tall as you want and if it grows 20 feet up, no foul. There really isn’t much else one can do. As long as the neighbors are following the process, it’s their property and they can do what they want.

  9. I have a friend building one and they plan to rent it for about $1,100 a month. That doesn’t sound like affordable housing to me. Not for an 800 square foot home.

    1. You can’t cure greed Gretchen. Right before the housing bubble burst, up here, people who were trying to sell, or flip their homes were pulling home valuations out of their behinds, and realtors were encouraging them. Many of them are still for sale at close to 1/2 of what they thought they could get, and they’re still not selling.

  10. In fact, Nevada City has more leeway than this. “For example, local governments may allow for the creation of second-units in residential zones, set development standards (i.e., height, SETBACKS, lot coverage), require minimum unit sizes and establish parking requirements.”

    And “A local government may apply quantifiable, fixed and objective standards, such as height, setback, and lot coverage requirements so the second-unit WILL BE COMPATABLE WITH other structures in the neighborhood.

    Here’s what it looks like to me: The city “rolled” for the state, because it was behind on meeting its affordable housing standards — at the expense of neighbors and neighborhoods. Now the burden is on the neighbors to sue, a not-so-neighborly situation. Thanks for nothing!

    Make no mistake about it: I’m all for affordable housing, but I’m also for neighbors having a say in what is built 5 or 10 feet from their property, including a structure that is 800 square feet and 35 feet high. It’s also inconsistent with what some consider to be onerous building regulations in the city.

  11. Here is the problem. It stems back to the housing bubble, deregulation of banks, and making derivatives legal. When the false dreams of subprime mortgages or interest free home loans were being given out without any background checks or collateral we started a housing bubble. People bought second homes for rentals and sometimes more at totally inflated prices. Now the bubble has burst and credit is hard to come by these risk takers are sitting with these homes with high mortgages trying to rent them out. When the housing bubble burst so did jobs and wages, which we still haven’t recovered. On the books there are plenty of rentals in the area but few are at prices those who work local jobs can afford. Doing volunteer work with the homeless I met many people who either had to choose to eat or have shelter/ home. They chose to work at their jobs and eat hoping something affordable would open up.

    One way we could actually start to correct this wrong is open up a public Nevada County Bank that would focus its investments/ loans into Nevada County residents and projects.

    Public Banks:

    * Make affordable loans to small businesses, farmers, government entitites, and students
    * Save taxpayers up to 50% on critical infrastructure like bridges and trains and schools
    * Eliminate billions in bank fees and money management fees for cities and states
    * Support a vibrant community banking sector
    * Enable sustainable prosperity

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