Santa Cruz housing designer Pat Powers
Santa Cruz designer Pat Powers is excited about all the changes to state, city and county laws that help to expand the possibilities for ADUs.
(Grace Stetson / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘This is going to solve the housing crisis’: Santa Cruz builder waxes on importance of ADUs

With home prices continuing to rise, Santa Cruz home designer Pat Powers thinks the solution lies with accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. Changes in state and local laws have made it easier to build the mini-homes, giving families more options on where to live.

Accessory dwelling units — more commonly referred to as ADUs — have boomed in popularity throughout California as housing prices continue to trend upward. Santa Cruz home designer Pat Powers goes further, saying they could help “solve the housing crisis.”

Powers has worked in construction for nearly the entire time he’s lived in Santa Cruz — a little over three decades — and said infilling homes across the city could help both newer and older residents maintain their Surf City way of being.

With the passage of AB 68 and AB 881 in October 2019, architects and home designers were allowed to build larger units, up to 800 square feet. In the city of Santa Cruz, Powers is able to design even larger units, up to 1,000-square-foot ADUs on 5,000-square-foot lots.

Yet, Powers said, it’s important to know that there is still a fairly high cost associated with these projects.

“From a cost standpoint, in the city of Santa Cruz, they come out to about $410,000 apiece — they’re not cheap to build; they’re mini-houses,” he said, estimating around $450 to $550 per square foot.

According to the latest figures from the Santa Cruz County Association of Realtors, the median price for a single-family home in the county is $1.185 million, making an ADU relatively affordable.

Currently, Powers and his team have around 15 projects in various stages of planning and construction throughout the city, with more than half of that number involving ADUs. He said he gets calls at least once a week about the units, and has had to put a pause on taking on new work for the past six months.

“It’s a real solution, especially for families — there are people who are going to maximize their properties, and I would say at least 50% of people are building for families or friends,” he said.

Other parts of the county have caught on to the ADU hype as well. In Capitola, the city council adopted a new ADU ordinance in March 2020, and it was certified by the Coastal Commission in September 2020. This means ADUs can be built in all residential zones, Community Development Director Katie Herlihy said.

“Just under half of the 51 new housing units created within the fifth housing cycle have been ADUs,” she said, noting an eight-year planning period under Regional Housing Need Allocation standards. “We anticipate the majority of our new housing stock in the future to be in the form of larger redevelopment projects, like the Capitola Mall, and within existing residential neighborhoods through ADUs.”

Capitola is also working with design group Workbench to develop four ADU prototypes, which, once finalized, will be available to Capitola residents for their use at no cost.

Suzi Merriam, the community development director for Watsonville, said she also has seen an uptick in ADU applications since June 2020. Since then, the city has received 76 ADU applications, of which 52 are in the development stage, 14 are under construction, and 10 have been finalized.

For now, Powers is finishing up an ADU across the street from his own home — an 800-square-foot, two-story development, with two bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms. The construction is barely visible from the street.

“I’m a big proponent of them — I believe in infill,” he said. “The ADUs allow a lot of families in Santa Cruz to have their children live in them, or family members. At that scale, at 1,000 square feet, they’re not eyesores — they actually compliment a lot of the architecture around town. They fit in a very small footprint.”

Next on his list? Designing an ADU on his own property for his adult daughter or son and their future family.

“It might be more of a European style of living, keeping our families close,” he said. “It might turn out to be a better way to keep families tighter ... it might create a better sense of community.”