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Berkeley’s backyard tiny house helps with income, landscape

Karen Chapple is a city planning professor so she knows all about the benefits of backyard cottages as urban infill and for adding density to sprawling neighborhoods, but when she took out a loan to build her own “accessory dwelling unit” (AKA secondary dwelling unit, granny flat, in-law unit), she did it for what she calls selfish reasons.

“This is how can I build a space that will accommodate my friends that visit, or my caretakers for my child, or my extended family, and also be able to raise rent money when my income is low. This is an income strategy for me as much as anything and an asset-building strategy.”

It cost Chapple $100,000 to build the 450-square-foot place, but Kevin Casey of New Avenue Homes (he was involved in the design of her home) estimates that it can be recouped by adding property value. Chapple says in a recent appraisal, the accessory dwelling added only $75,000 to her home.

The place is small- the footprint is just 250 square feet (the 450 square feet total includes the sleeping loft and porch)-, but her first tenants were a family with a 2-year-old son. Both Karen Kerr and her partner are firefighters which means their salaries don’t go far in the high rent communities of the San Francisco Bay Area. So downsizing to a tiny home just made sense.

“It’s a more economical way to live,” explains Kerr, though she sees added benefits to sharing a lot with another family. “We have a lot more community. We share meals. I think it’s great for the kids. There’s a lot of time the kids can play together.”

But for Kerr, living in a backyard cottage wasn’t just about cutting costs. “We love it because if our son is playing on the floor we’re all together if we’re reading on the couch there’s a lot more sense of being together in our house now.

For many a backyard unit would feel like an invasion of privacy in an area many of us see as sacred. “People feel they should be able to run around naked in their backyard,” jokes Chapple, but this single mother of a young girl says for her, she much prefers a bit less privacy for the added security she gains by adding a family to her backyard. She also points out that the way the cottage was built neither of them have a direct view into each other’s homes.

Chapple, who is also director of the Center for Community Innovation, has conducted research on accessory homes so she knows she’s lucky as a Berkeley resident to have been able to build a backyard unit with few regulatory hurdles. Her city required only a 4-foot setback from the lot line on all sides of the cottage (many cities require 20) and, as long as her tenant parked in her driveway, they didn’t require an extra parking space (some cities require 2 extra for an extra unit).

As part of her study, Chapple and her team estimate that Berkeley has as many as 4,000 potential sites for these secondary units and that there are 2000 already, though most are not legal- something she sees as a problem for the future of tiny homes.

“People want to live in tiny houses, they want to live in cottages, they need smaller spaces and that’s very exciting and you can get your venture capitalists to invest, but if you don’t have the regulatory structure in place- in Berkeley, 60% of single family lots are not allowed to build one of these, right now, and Berkeley has the most liberal regulations of any city we looked at. So if you don’t have that structure in place that market can’t be freed and realized. And people didn’t realize that, for instance, setback regulations were really blocking a lot of these.”

[Chapple’s tiny home was built by by T&G Construction].