City planners and firefighters want to reduce density in the Oakland hills, where narrow roads can lead to congestion during fire evacuation. Credit: Amir Aziz

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The Oakland City Council will consider a controversial ban on building backyard cottages in the fire-prone hills, but the proposal doesn’t go as far as city planners and firefighters initially wanted it to.

Be prepared: Check out our wildfire safety guide.

On Wednesday, the Oakland Planning Commission unanimously approved a proposal that would prohibit the construction of most accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, in areas of the hills considered most at risk of fire. ADUs include cottages, in-law units, and other apartments built as an addition to, or nearby, a main house. The proposal, which makes its way to the City Council next, would allow only one “internal” ADU—like a basement apartment—at each property in the designated area, but does not allow for any detached structures or additions. 

The policy scales down an original proposal that would have applied to a wider swath of the hills and restricted all types of ADUs. 

Over the summer, the Oakland Fire Department and Planning Department asked for an all-out ban on new ADUs across the state-designated “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.” In Oakland, that’s basically the entire hills area, where highly flammable trees and narrow, winding roads combine with dry, windy conditions in the summer and fall to create an extreme fire hazard.

Oakland fire and planning officials are concerned that if more ADUs are built in these areas, there will be more residents fleeing fires, increasing the risk of deadly traffic jams and obstructing emergency vehicles. 

“We recently saw that in the South Lake Tahoe area with the Caldor Fire,” said Deputy Fire Chief Nicholas Luby at Wednesday’s meeting. “That was a planned evacuation, and still, the fire service ran into very difficult situations trying to evacuate a large number of people through limited infrastructure.” 

Some ADU construction has been limited in portions of the hills since 2017, in areas where streets are narrower than 20 feet. This only covers a small piece of the fire-hazard zone, however, where ADU construction has largely been able to move forward. Out of the 860 building permits taken out for ADUs since 2018 in Oakland, 100 were located in the fire-hazard zone, according to city staff. The entire fire-hazard zone includes about 19,000 residential properties.

In June, a Planning Commission meeting on the ADU ban drew 50 speakers who mostly criticized the prohibition, saying the proposal  covered too wide of an area, including streets where congestion is less of a concern. Many homeowners said they planned to build an ADU to house an aging relative or to bring in rental income during retirement. They questioned the logic of banning ADUs but not larger homes that could come with more people and cars. 

California and local governments like Oakland have, in recent years, promoted ADUs as a quicker, cheaper way to alleviate housing shortages. Some critics of the suggested hills ban said it lets the Oakland hills—a largely affluent and predominantly white area—off the hook in helping address the housing crisis.

After hearing the concerns raised at the June meeting, the Planning Commission asked staff to come back with a more “surgical” proposal, identifying more specific areas of concern, instead of a blanket ban through the entire hills.

The proposal presented Wednesday reduces the affected area, no longer covering the whole Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, but only the parts where streets are narrower than 26 feet, which is the current minimum requirement for street width in Oakland. That area includes about 12,000 properties, instead of 19,000. Staff presented two options for that 12,000-property area: banning ADUs fully, or limiting construction to one internal apartment at each house. 

Commissioners seemed to favor the latter option because it still allows some ADUs, alleviating some of the concerns about a ban.

The light pink shows the area of the hills where most ADU construction is already prohibited. The darker pink shows the expanded area where most ADUs would be prohibited under the current proposal. The full colored portion at the top of the map displays the entire Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone. Credit: City of Oakland

“With the way fire activity…is presenting itself with climate change, the fire department still feels the best option is to limit increased occupancy within the threat zone,” said Luby, the deputy fire chief. But he acknowledged the need to build more housing throughout Oakland, and said OFD is comfortable with the scaled-down ban.

Commissioners repeatedly praised OFD and planners for juggling the competing interests of public safety, housing needs, and equity concerns. They approved the proposed legislation, but didn’t fully endorse a piece of the proposal that would require certain homeowners and developers to add fire sprinklers to the entire property when building a new internal ADU. They also asked the City Council to consider an exemption process if an ADU applicant has a medical need for an ADU, or if they can prove their project would not impede evacuation, for example by leaving a clear route out of the property. 

One of the 15 or so public speakers Wednesday said they’ve been counting on the opportunity to build an ADU for both rental income and to potentially house a caretaker down the line. 

“I never knew I was in the Oakland hills—I thought I was in upper Laurel,” said Trudy Martin. “As a low-income civil rights attorney, I don’t have a lot of assets to rely on for my retirement. A health condition left me disabled and I retired from my law practice. Now the prospect of an ADU is the only thing that stands between me and having to leave the area.” 

Commissioner Sahar Shirazi was perhaps the most skeptical of the ban, saying it may “conflate two different issues,” limiting housing units in an affluent area, but not necessarily addressing the root issue of too many cars and poor transportation infrastructure. 

Others said ADU tenants will almost definitely come with cars and increase fire hazards.

“I don’t think any of us wants to stop the production of housing units,” said Commissioner Vince Sugrue. But “public transit is really not a significant option if you live in the hills. It’s not really a walkable community, and you have invasive eucalyptus that can just move fire so quickly.” 

The hills proposal is part of a package of ADU policy updates passed onto the City Council by the commission Wednesday. Most of the other changes are intended to bring Oakland into compliance with state laws making it easier to build ADUs throughout the city. 

The council has not yet set a date to vote on the item. 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.