The Junior Second Units Solution

The Junior Second Units Solution

A Low-Impact/High-Benefit Solution to Changing Housing Needs in Marin


by Rachel Ginis

We live on a majestic peninsula surrounded by natural wonders set just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Marin, brilliantly located, is an amazing place to live and work.

Exceeding population projections, Marin grew by 1% or 2,500 people in 2013.  Babies accounted for less than 20% of our growth. According to the 2012 Marin County Housing Element the fastest growing sectors of our population over the next 30 years will be the elderly and young adults, who tend to have the lowest income levels. The senior population is expected to more than double over the same period. How are we planning to house this expanding population of lower income young adults and seniors?

Did you know that over half the homes in Marin are occupied by only one or two people? In most cases these two are a couple sleeping in only one bedroom, leaving the majority of bedrooms, in an average three-bedroom home, either empty or under-utilized. We are moving into an age of individuals. Family size has shrunk to 2.3 persons per household, while home sizes have grown by 30% in America over the last thirty years. We face major housing challenges in our area, yet we have the most bedrooms per person of all the counties in the Bay Area. Marin is an affluent community, but we live in a gilded cage, where our own children cannot afford to come home and live and our seniors cannot afford to age in place.

Second units are the best solution to address the need for housing in our community, as these small spaces maintain the character of our neighborhoods and have the least impact on the environment. Yet given restrictive requirements like additional parking spaces, fire sprinklers, and high fees few of these units come into fruition through proper channels.

Unfortunately, illegal second units often do not comply with public building and safety regulations or serve the whole of our community by increasing a home’s property taxes according to the increase in value. For every permitted second unit that is created, three un-permitted units are removed. Given that fact, it is clear that eliminating costly and unreasonable requirements would be in the best interest of our community.

Second units, commonly referred to as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in local zoning codes, offer an excellent opportunity to create affordable housing while maintaining the character of our neighborhoods. But how do we solve the challenge of required parking, fire sprinklers, and high fees? We are working on a model ordinance to create a new type of second unit. What sets Junior Second Units (JSUs) apart from other ADUs is that they offer a low-cost, low-impact, and plentiful source of affordable rental housing while defraying the cost of homeownership, making both renting and owning a home in Marin more affordable.

junior-unit2Junior Second Units are created by re-purposing a bedroom in an existing home. They do not redefine single-family homes, as the door adjoining the Junior Unit to the main living area remains. They do not increase density as the living and sleeping capacity of a home does not change. The requirements for water and energy, the need for parking, and the impact on local roads have all been accounted for in the original permit for the home. All that is needed to create a Junior Unit is a bar sink, a standard set of electrical outlets to accommodate plugin appliances, a bathroom, and an exterior entrance.

We have an enormous opportunity to capture the low hanging fruit in the housing equation. Re-purposing spare bedrooms into small, private living spaces provides homeowners and renters alike access to affordable housing. Retired people on fixed incomes will have extra income to care for themselves and their home. Seniors aging in place and young families with small children can house caregivers. Single parents will be able to remain in their home, keeping friends  and family near by. We can house our parents and our children.

Junior Second Units will provide local businesses with more employees and a larger client base. They will generate business for the remodeling industry and the real estate industry by offering greater access to the housing market through an additional revenue stream. They will help us maintain and enhance socially and economically diverse, and multi-generational communities. And they will help us fulfill our housing allocation requirements without having to construct new buildings using precious resources.

Junior Second Units will provide a new, accessible option to meet our housing needs going forward. Are you a resident who could increase your income by converting a spare bedroom into a Junior Second Unit? If so, please contact your council members, planning director, and your representative on the Board of Supervisors and ask them to help pass a model ordinance allowing for Junior Second Units. You can also contact us at Lilypad Homes to learn more
(415) 250-9317.


Rachel Ginis is a LEED Accredited designer and general contractor, and the founding director of Lilypad Homes, a design and development firm that specializes in the creation of second units. Rachel held onto her own home as a single parent on a designer’s salary by repurposing the master bedroom into a private living space. She wants to empower other homeowners going through transitions to do the same. To accomplish this goal Rachel started a campaign to create Junior Second Units by presenting to and working with planning directors throughout Marin on a model ordinance to create a simple and inexpensive permitting track.