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Second Units: The Potential for Promoting Affordability and Quality Jobs

Staff Perspective Belén Seara

Greetings Get Healthy Partners,

The momentum is growing for second units in the county as a way to increase the much needed housing stock. Early this year, I shared in our newsletter the Second Unit Center launched by Home For All  to help homeowners interested in building second units understand the process and estimated construction costs. More recently, I shared the exciting news that our County’s Board of Supervisors adopted a Second Unit Amnesty and Loan program that will enable a pilot program to help up to five homeowners bring existing unpermitted second units up to code to ensure healthy housing conditions while increasing second unit renters’ protections. The potential of second units keeps growing as the debate evolves and implementation programs move forward.

I wanted to share three efforts that illustrate the potential of second units to provide affordable housing and promote quality jobs. Health Policy and Planning’s efforts around second units has been primarily informed by our participation on the task force convened by the City of East Palo Alto. The City is leading the discussion on how to promote second units while mitigating displacement of residents living in unpermitted second units. Task force members have raised questions about the potential of second units to be both truly affordable and a path to promote quality jobs for marginalized residents. I hope these three efforts can inform future deliberations about how to maximize the benefits of building second units at large scale:

  • Second Units for Section 8 Voucher Holders: The Backyard Home Project aims to incentivize low- to moderate-income homeowners to build second units and rent them to Section 8 voucher holders. This initiative is led by LA-Más, a nonprofit that utilizes place-based strategies to expand opportunities in underserved neighborhoods in Los Angeles. They are in the design phase of this effort, so I will keep a close eye on the evolution of this model.
  • Affordable Second Dwelling Unit Programs: The County of Sonoma has a second unit affordability program that combines a series of incentives for homeowners interested in building second units and renting them to lower-income renters for a set period of time. The program allows larger second units and second units in smaller parcels for homeowners that commit to rent these units to low- and very-low income renters for a minimum of 30 years. Sonoma County can count these units toward its regional housing needs assessment allocation and low-income renters get real affordability. A win-win effort.
  • Quality Jobs in Modular Construction: The affordability crisis has two sides; the one that we hear the most refers to the lack of sufficient affordable housing to meet existing demand; and the other side is the growth of low-income jobs that are not paying workers enough to afford to live in the area. Thus, key to tackling the affordability crisis is the promotion of quality jobs. Factory OS is a Vallejo-based multi-family modular manufacturing company that relies on a unionized construction workforce. This business model tackles the affordability crisis from both sides: reducing the cost of building affordable units while promoting local quality jobs. This could be a model that can be translated to the manufacturing of second units.   

The second unit field is burgeoning and with it the array of ideas, pilots, and policies to maximize the benefits of second unit initiatives for low-income homeowners and renters. I’ll keep sharing ideas and model practices via our newsletter and social media, so stay tuned! And if you hear of any other promising efforts, please share it with me via email,

Belen Seara