The San Diego City Council last month approved new regulations aimed at making it cheaper and easier to build granny flats in the city.

Granny flats – often called accessory dwelling units and companion units – are second, small homes or apartments built on the same lot as existing single-family homes. The city was forced to update its rules regulating granny flats to meet the requirements of a new state law that took effect in January.

I asked a handful of San Diego architects and housing advocates to weigh in on the city’s changes, which met and, in some places, exceeded the state requirements. Most said that while the new laws are a good first step, city leaders should go even further in helping make granny flats an easy and affordable option.

The overall goal of the state law and the new city regulations is to help put a dent in California’s housing crisis. But while most agree that looser granny flat rules will result in people building more of them, not many folks are convinced that the city’s regulation changes will result in bringing the thousands of new, more affordable units San Diego needs.

Add your thoughts by leaving a comment or emailing me. The responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

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We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Many San Diegans may think the granny flat regulations passed by the City Council are a great first step toward solving our housing crisis. The problem is that the goal in mind here requires a leap.

The regulations themselves are fine. Out of the 61 other statewide jurisdictions that have passed ordinances in response to new state laws requiring them to ease restrictions on granny flats, San Diego’s regulations are among the most consistent with the spirit and letter of the state law. But the state law also mandates proportional fees for granny flats, and this is where San Diego failed to leap.

Depending on your neighborhood, the fees required to start building a granny flat can vary from $4,800 to well over $80,000. Granny flats are not the single solution to the housing crisis. They are not a solution at all if the fees are not proportional, as state law mandates. The city had seven months to prepare for this, and failed to address the second and arguably most important issue. I encourage the Council to act quickly on the fee revisions before the momentum slows.
— Jared Basler, Basis Studio

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Accessory dwelling units are a small piece of the housing puzzle, but the new regulations do go a long way toward finding more ways to fit more of them on more lots. The area increases, parking reductions and creation of a “junior” category are all big, important changes.

However, there may be unintended consequences.

The regulations effectively up-zone single-family zones into two-unit zones, and two-unit zones into three-unit zones. A 1,200-square-foot granny flat could loom over its neighbors. In Crown Point, for instance, many houses straddle multiple 25-foot wide lots, so a small craftsman could be replaced by four, two-story townhomes (the prohibition against selling granny flats separately from the primary dwelling unit might curtail this).

The biggest barrier that’s still keeping people from building granny flats are high housing prices and the ability of a typical developer to qualify for a loan. I’m guessing most people would finance purchase and construction with a single renovation loan, and then live in one unit while they build the other. But because housing prices are so high, the initial purchase would likely require most of the loan, leaving little room for unexpected costs. With all that risk, an investor would be better off buying an existing condo. Also, the construction loan is based on future rental income so building granny flats only makes sense where rent is already high, so don’t expect the new units that come online to offer affordable rent.
— Kevin Bussett, Studio E Architects

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The City Council approved an ordinance to allow additional companion units, which will both increase the availability of housing and improve its affordability. The new companion units ordinance went through an extensive review process based on state-required mandates for companion units.  The regulations may not be perfect, and as always, there may be unintended consequences, but the Council recognized that the regulations need periodic review and we citizens need to help monitor it and speak up when we see problems arise. While the City Council took a good step forward toward addressing San Diego’s housing issues with these new companion unit regulations, more steps need to follow.
— John Ziebarth, ZAAP Inc.

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There  is still much that can be done to boost the production of accessory dwelling units in San Diego.

The Smart Growth and Land Use Committee recommended to the City Council that it approve a two-year pilot program during which accessory dwelling unit fees would be reduced to a flat fee of $2,000 – down from the current fees of approximately $28,300.  The City Council may still have an opportunity to approve this program, and it’s my hope that the pilot program will be created, as it could create a great boost in granny flat production.

My firm studied San Diego’s accessory dwelling unit fees and compared them to the fees of several other major cities. We found that there is a direct correlation between fees and the number of units built; the lower the fees, the more units built, and vice-versa.

For example, the city of Portland, Ore., charges approximately $1,300 in fees and approximately 350 granny flats have been built there each year since 2015.  Santa Cruz charges around $12,800 in fees and approximately 50 units have been built each year since 2015.  Finally, in San Diego, fees are approximately $28,300, and the city estimates that only 10 accessory dwelling units are built here each year. A two-year pilot program establishing a flat fee of $2,000 is a much-needed policy change that could result in a big granny flat boom.

As naturally occurring affordable housing, accessory dwelling units help fight the displacement that typically occurs when neighborhoods gentrify and rents and housing prices climb, as they have in recent years in San Diego. This type of urban infill is also environmentally friendly, reducing commute times and urban sprawl. By allowing people to stay in their own communities, among their own neighbors, families and friends, they help maintain networks that create well-being for all San Diegans.
— Jennifer LeSar, President & CEO

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We are in a housing crisis, not only here in San Diego, but throughout Southern California.  Twenty years ago was the time for timely action, but in the now we must work with urgency to provide affordable small units throughout the city.

Honestly, I think the time may have come for rent control, but perhaps a liberal companion unit law will forestall that eventuality. The single most powerful tool to allow meaningful implementation of the companion unit statute is to waive the parking requirement for these units for any single-family home that is within a half mile of a bus stop or any other transit stop.  The need for parking in our cities will be all but dissolved within 10 to 15 years due to the coming driverless car revolution, as has been reported at length.
— James Brown, Public Architecture and Planning

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Local efforts to increase the supply of modestly sized accessory dwelling units through legislative efforts to implement California’s SB 1069 guidelines need to be paired with a drastic reduction to the fees paid to development services, San Diego’s building department. Council members Georgette Gomez and David Alvarez suggested doing this through a short-term pilot program, which should be implemented.

The current fee structure is cost-prohibitive to most property owners in urban areas like Barrio Logan, City Heights and San Ysidro, where even a 500-square-foot garage conversion will require an investment near $30,000 to cover fees alone. The unintended consequence will be that neighborhoods with more affluent residents will be the hotspots where accessory dwelling units get built, since their development impact fees are $8,000 to $10,000 lower and applicants have the means to cover the fees.
— Francisco Garcia, Modern Architecture Services

    This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Housing, Must Reads, Opinion

    Written by Kinsee Morlan

    Kinsee Morlan is the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. She works to expand our reach and helps community members write op-eds. She also manages VOSD’s podcasts and covers the arts, culture, land use and entrepreneurs. Contact her directly at kinsee.morlan@voiceofsandiego.org. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Subscribe to her podcast.

    6 comments
    Charles Smith
    Charles Smith

    The government proclaims, let's use companion units to make housing more affordable. Then turn around and charge $28,300 in fees. What a joke.


    Think about it, that is 1,347 hours of work, excluding taxes, for someone making double the minimum wage. At 21$ an hour, working 40 hour weeks that is 33 weeks of labor, just to get permission to put something in your own back yard. 8 months of work...


    What is the actual time/labor costs involved in the service that is being provided? 


    On a side note, If someone can build this type of unit in their backyard, why not make it legal for all individuals to be able to build one of these as a single family primary residence? It seems to disproportionately favors preexisting homeowners. 





    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    If I suddenly was authorized to build a granny flat on my single family zoned property, I'd likely put it on AirBnB.  Result:  More tourists, no relief for needed permanent housing.

    Pedro Tavares
    Pedro Tavares subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw a myopic view. Why is it the granny flats that have to be affordable when a young family can't afford a single-family house in this city? Having an AirBnB'able unit on a  property is a good way to make an $800,000 house affordable for a couple in their 30's...

    Allen Carter
    Allen Carter subscriber

    Granny flats are not needed, at least not in my neighborhood, as many people rent out 3-4 bedroom houses to 5 or 6 unrelated adults.

    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    Let's be realistic. There will not be many people that take advantage of the new regs., and those that do will be unlikely to charge affordable rents on the new units. The best way to attack the housing shortage is for the council to encourage and approve the development of multifamily projects and up-zoning in appropriate areas. Unfortunately, the council has a history of buckling to neighborhood activists that want to keep that low density suburban feel.

    Will Johnson
    Will Johnson subscriber

    @bgetzel It feels misleading.  While this could be a great  investment for homeowners to create rental income,  Its hard to imagine that this will bring any relief to our rental shortage.