East Palo Alto Garage Conversions



In 2017, city staff in East Palo Alto responded to a number of existing resident complaints, which led to the discovery of over 60 “informal” unpermitted residential projects. In the majority of cases, these homeowners converted their garage into a bedroom unit without going through the formal approval process with the city, and so there were major life safety issues that prompted code enforcement officials to “red tag” the units. This designation requires the resident to vacate the unpermitted unit until it can be brought up to current code. Though this process is critical to making sure the converted living quarters are safe to inhabit, residents were often left without the knowledge or resources to quickly address the urgent requirements.

In order to streamline the process of legalizing an existing, illegal conversion, City Systems partnered with the City of East Palo Alto as well as the nonprofit community organization Rebuilding Together Peninsula. Using grant money from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Wells Fargo, and Get Healthy San Mateo, we decided to legalize 4 of the red-tagged projects as pilots. See below for more details.

Project TASKS

  1. With help from Bearington Studios, we are producing architectural drawings for the pilots for submission and approval by the City in order to fully legalize the chosen pilot projects. This was the critical first step in order to familiarize ourselves with the issues that tend to be major cost drivers and are likely to be common across single family residences in East Palo Alto.

  2. Using the successful pilot projects as a guide, we are templatizing the design documents necessary for city approval. Because the majority of construction details are identical across projects, usually the only major differences are the basic geometries of the building. This could greatly reduce the amount of time required by a licensed professional to update the layout and finalize the drawings, saving a substantial amount of the upfront cost for a resident to create and submit plans.

  3. Using data from the pilot projects as a start, we are creating a detailed planning tool and cost estimator for garage conversion projects. This online dashboard will be completely free and available via the City of East Palo Alto’s website once completed. Residents start by entering their address (information which is not stored or sent to any third party) to determine whether or not their property is eligible for an additional unit. Then they are offered a series of questions that allow them to get an extremely rough estimate for the cost of a garage conversion. These questions and estimates will be refined as more projects are completed and more detailed information is gathered.

  4. We are conducting extensive community outreach throughout the project to educate East Palo Alto residents. Other than the eligibility and cost estimating tool, this project has helped the City of EPA to simplify their policy surrounding the construction of additional units, and so the outreach will help communicate these changes to the public. Because of the linguistic diversity of East Palo Alto’s residents, it is also important that this information be translated to the several prominent languages present in the community.

  5. Ultimately, we hope to expand the tool beyond the boundaries of East Palo Alto and beyond the scope of garage conversions. This includes attached and detached accessory dwelling units (ADUs). This expansion of capabilities is contingent upon the team’s capacity and resources as well as similar work happening in parallel from other organizations in the Bay Area and beyond.

PROJECT events

As the project has progressed, a number of public events have been scheduled and held to educate the residents of East Palo Alto.


February 26th, 2019 @ St. Francis of Assisi Church (1425 Bay Road): Presentation on project updates and initial workshop for garage conversion dashboard. Over a dozen residents attended, and we were able to test the eligibility tool with them and print out the results. We received good feedback and learned a lot about the success (and limitations) of event outreach in EPA.


April 17th, 2019 @ EPA YMCA (550 Bell St): We hosted a second workshop on project updates and offered more testing of initial garage conversion dashboard. Thanks to increased outreach, this event was even more well-attended than the first, and we facilitated lively discussion with many residents looking to clear the air about former frustrations regarding additional units.


May 5th, 2019 @ Bell Street Park: City Systems set up a table at the local Cinco de Mayo Festival to give out information on the EPA Garage Conversion Project and invite people to the Resource Fair on June 8th.


June 8th, 2019 @ Community Church in EPA: Half-day resource fair to update the public on the EPA Garage Conversion project. We also consulted with residents using our ADU eligibility and cost calculator tool to see about constructing an additional unit on their property. Several other organizations — including Rebuilding Together Peninsula, Soup, the City of East Palo Alto, and San Mateo County’s Home for All, also attended and staffed booths to provide residents with more information around the process. The team was able to consult with over 40 residents, and the event overall had over 100 attendees.