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Bottom-up urbanism solves urgent housing needs in CA vicinity

When Johnny Sanphillippo wanted to upsize his 700-square-foot home in Sonoma County, California, he discovered that a legal backyard cottage would cost him close to $200,000 in permits, fees, inspections and building costs, so he chose a leaner approach. “I reverse engineered what was legal as-of-right without permits, fees, or inspections. 120 square feet, no more than 12 feet tall, no electricity or plumbing. Full stop.”

His “Slack Haven” or “The Bitter Suite” began as a $4,500 cedar shed kit from Canada. He spent another $4,500 on insulation, finishes, wood flooring and furniture. Now the “third bedroom” and backyard office space is warm in winter, cool in summer while remaining off-grid. Lighting comes in the form of a couple of 5 watt LED bulbs powered by little battery bricks designed to recharge cell phones and iPads.

Since the home is a rental space for a family of four (going on five), who work from home, he sought out other ways of growing the living space. He began by adding a deck. A pizza oven, several grills and a sink to create an outdoor kitchen next to a long table for big dinner parties. Another part of the deck with outdoor couches and movie projector/screen has become an outdoor living room. More recently, he began converting the garage into a living room (and perhaps bedroom when he adds a Murphy Bed) in an informal (i.e. permit-free) way.

Johnny charges his tenants well below the $3800/month going rate for a rental home in Graton (Sebastopol). In exchange they maintain the extensive gardens which provide most of the family’s produce in summer (and Johnny’s: he’s a frequent visitor).

Johnny sees the code work-arounds he’s created and those in his neighborhood (e.g. backyard tiny houses, fire-refugee RVs) as a reaction to the calcified zoning laws creating high rents in not just California, but increasingly, other parts of the U.S. “Somewhere along the way we went from regulating things in order to guard the public health and safety to something else entirely.

“‘Maintain property values.’ ‘Preserve the character of the neighborhood.’ ‘Keep out the wrong element.’ ‘Where will everyone park?’ ‘Think of the children!’ Or just plain revenue enhancement”, he writes on his blog Granola Shotgun. “I’ve traveled all over the country to red states and blue states, small towns and big cities. The particulars are different, but the overall effect is exactly the same everywhere. Look around at all the schlock. This is what our society mandates.”