It Came from the Backyard

With more ADU dwellings on the way—what lies ahead for the character and livability of mid-century modern neighborhoods?
This conceptual rendering by Modern House Architects shows the main house in the foreground, an open area for lounging, and the ADU in the rear.

To Ken Cashion, it is a thing of beauty and of kindness, the brand-new mini-Eichler in the backyard of his Eichler home.

"We're building an ADU in the style of our Eichler," he says, meaning what is officially called an 'accessory dwelling unit,' and often referred to as a 'granny flat' or 'backyard cottage.'

Here's a case where personal interest, that of Ken and his wife, Cindy Chadwick, coincides with what many see as the interests of society.

"We're doing it as a kind of 'Noah's Ark' kind of thing, for me," Cashion says of his backyard structure. He lives in Joe Eichler's Greenridge tract in Castro Valley and plans to rent out the ADU, probably to an acquaintance who lacks adequate housing.

"I've seen so many friends, people in the community, people at church who've had to leave the area. They were renting, and someone sold the house," Cashion says. "It's an act of charity on my behalf—and vanity, getting to design and build something. I'm looking for it to be a landing pad where people can get a footing."

The Castro Valley ADU of Eichler owners Ken Cashion and Cindy Chadwick. "I'm looking for it to be a landing pad where people can get a footing," says Cashion.

"It's been a challenge to keep the original [Eichler] look and still meet code for energy and seismic," he says of his ADU project. The mini-Eichler that Cashion, an industrial designer, designed, is 750 square feet, with two bedrooms and one bath.

"My wife and I are excited about the idea of having more people around," Cashion says. "We've embraced the idea of more communal living. We could have meals together. Now it's just two people in a four-bedroom, two-bath house."

New laws, new changes

In California, distressed by the lack and high cost of housing, state legislators and the governor have been enacting laws to make it easier to provide denser housing in single-family neighborhoods—so much so that many people, both those who favor the changes and those who do not, say this could amount to the end of single-family zoning.

There's California Assembly Bill AB 68, signed into law in 2019, allowing homeowners to add relatively small dwelling units to their properties, even if homeowner association rules ban them. They can introduce two units to the property—one, an exterior standalone; another, a 'junior ADU' built inside the home or garage.

Do height limits affect your neighborhood? Forget about them for your accessory unit, according to AB 68—it can rise to 16 feet in height. (Many Eichlers top out at eight feet.)

Cashion and Chadwick relax over a game of Dominoes.

New state law also restricts the ability of cities or counties to block accessory units through lot coverage or setback rules—while not banning such rules if they are deemed reasonable.

Then there is Senate Bill SB 9, from 2021, which allows single-family homeowners on large enough lots to split their lots into two separately owned parcels, adding a second home on the new parcel, or even creating duplexes on each. Picture one Eichler home—suddenly replaced by four homes.

On top of that there is SB 10, passed along with SB 9, which allows local governments, "if they choose," to permit homeowners to create apartment or condo complexes of up to ten units on formerly single-family lots, if they are near transit or employment hubs.

These laws promise significant changes for the better: more housing for our growing populace; more affordable housing; lessening the inherent elitism of suburbs filled with nothing but high-priced homes; and making up, somewhat rather late in the game, for the injustices of segregation.

Aerial view shows Cashion's entire property and its surroundings.

But the laws also present potential problems. With greater density, will parking be a problem? Can new units be built without destroying a neighborhood's architectural and historical character?

Will the occupants of new units stare through glass walls into homes of their neighbors? And will Eichlers be torn down to make way for multiple-unit properties?

Time will tell. But in the meantime, at least a handful of people in Eichler neighborhoods are taking advantage of the new laws.

Just up the hill from Ken Cashion's ADU, Thomas Westfall, a realtor who specializes in East Bay Eichler properties, is putting in an ADU behind his own home by converting an existing freestanding building, which was built by the home's former owner, a contractor, as his workshop. It was built in the Eichler style.

"It's going to be super slick," Westfall says of the dwelling unit, which will be a rental.

"I think the ADU is an amazing opportunity to maximize the value and utility of your property. The idea of an expanded family is in vogue, much more popular these days," he says.

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