The Granny Flat Issue in San Diego
Anyone living in San Diego is aware that we
have a housing shortage. There are many solutions that could help, but, for
now, I am going to target one solution that would alleviate the situation in
providing seniors, students, singles, handicapped and service industry people an
affordable place to live.
Two decades ago the California Legislature enacted a “second unit” law to
encourage development of housing. In San Diego this law has been virtually
ignored. One article I found claimed 18 “Granny Flats” have been approved
since 1984. The local government has consistently put unnecessary conditions
and procedural obstacles in place to discourage second units. Why? My guess
is the fear of the “NIMBY’s” at community planning groups and council
meetings and the clout
they hold with politicians. A favorite retort is “ a need to protect the
single family neighborhoods”.
Have you been to a community planning meeting? If not, I suggest you attend
one. It can be enlightening and rewarding or it can be brutal. I admire the
courage a citizen has in going before this group with anything
controversial—and, as far as the NIMBY’s are concerned, just about
everything is controversial. Even the City Planners deserve a reward for
attending. These professionals, hired by the city to do their job, present
their findings to the group. The Planners follow the rules set forth in the
codes and approve or suggest changes required by the codes. The neighbors
give valid or self-interested objections and then the board votes. This
process can delay decisions month after month. Time is money and this adds
to the cost of any project--and to the rife in communities.
In the interest of helping the housing problem, the CA. Legislature
enacted Bill AB 1866 which took effect July 1, 2003. It includes bonus
density and second units.
Bill AB 1866 (Wright)
Provides that: Local governments
may not apply development standards (parking,
setbacks, local coverage are
some of the most common barriers) to low and moderate
income and senior
housing that make it impossible to build housing at the established
If a local government determines that a density bonus is
not needed to make a development
affordable, this finding must be based on
written and objective analysis. (Attorney fees will
be awarded if the locality violates the law.)
The granting of
permits for second units on a residential zoned parcel is ministerial, not
discretionary, which obviates the need for time-consuming, costly hearings
that are in compliance with local zoning and development
Developers of moderate income common interest developments
(condos) may obtain a
The bill had broad support. It was cosponsored by the
Realtors, CRLAF and Western Center and is supported by over 100 housing,
business, labor, senior and religious groups, including California Housing
Council, Carpenters, Building Trades, Congress of California Seniors, CA
Legislative Council for Older Americans, Alliance of Retired Americans,
Southern California Assn. for Non-Profit Housing, Housing Policy Network,
Shelter Partnership and Children Now.
Local governments will be required to implement a process for
second units (like the process for obtaining a permit for a room addition, for example) in which the applicant is entitled to
the permit if he or she complies
with local standards -- obviating the need for time-consuming,
contentious costly public hearings.
How did San Diego City Council comply with this bill?
As reported by Ray Huard, a Union Tribune staff writer on July 2,
"Regulations on adding granny-flat apartments to
single-family homes were tentatively changed by the San Diego City Council
Monday to bring them into compliance with state law while keeping th
regulations as restrictive as possible".
What were the Objections Stated by Council Members?
Mayor Murphy: "I've never been much of a fan or supporter of companion units because I'm
always concerned that we are not protecting single- family neighborhoods the
way we should be."
Councilman Jim Madaffer: "The thing that bothered me about the bill is
that it's a state mandate on local land use, and I'm opposed to that. If every house on a given street decided to do a granny flat, a
neighborhood could be turned into an apartment zone."
"We already have a huge "mini-dorm" problem (in the SDSU
area), and if necessary, I'm going to be a strong advocate to change the law
so I don't get phone calls from people in my district upset that they have
Betsy McCullough, Planning Department's
response to Murphy's comment on "an outright ban on companion units" )
Such a ban would be impossible under state law. To do so, the
city would have to declare that granny flats are harmful to public safety,
health or welfare."
Councilman Brian Maienschein: "The city should prohibit
granny flats in communities where roads, parking, water and sewer lines and
other city services are deficient."
Mayor Murphy: "Retain restrictions
that require owners at all times live in a home that includes a granny flat to
avoid absentee landlords from converting single-family homes into mini-dorms."
The revised regulations were approved in a 7-2 vote with council members
Charles Lewis and Brian Maienschein opposed.
What are the new San Diego Regulations?
Under the new regulations, permits for granny flat construction could be
issued without requiring a public hearing on units that meet certain guidelines.
Proposals that didn't meet the guidelines would require review by a hearing
officer or the city Planning Commission, depending on how much they varied from
the guidelines, said Betsy McCullough, the Planning Department's deputy
The new regulations would limit the size of granny flats to 700 square feet.
They would be allowed only on lots at least twice the size required for a single
family house. For example, in a community where zoning requires a minimum of
5,000 square feet for a single-family home, granny flats would be allowed only
on lots of at least 10,000 square feet.
In addition to the lot size, the Council added another devastating regulation.
A main residence and second unit could not be
built at the same time. Developers, who were having the success of
offering a "granny flat" option for new homes could no longer do this. It
is common knowledge that costs can be cut when one builds 2 units at the same
time. It also adds design
integrity to the project.
What did the City Planners Suggest?
City planners suggested restricting granny flats to SFR's with lots of at
least 5000 sf and requiring that granny flats be no more than 700 sf. They also
recommended at least one off-street parking space be provided for each bedroom
in a granny flat.
Will Granny Flats Add Affordable Housing in San
My guess is NO! The City Council put "zingers" in
their new regulations to prevent second units from being built in San Diego
neighborhoods. The big "zinger" is requiring double the average lot size
in the neighborhood. The City Planners recommendation of 5000 square foot
lots was ignored. That would actually have opened the floodgates to all
the communities where city lots average 5000 square feet.
Lots outside the city are often larger and would have no trouble meeting the
requirements, but I believe the Council used this lot size "ploy" to block
granny flats within the city limits. There were 3 articles in the San Diego
Union, little discussion, and the new regulations were passed.
Other regulations were more reasonable: 700 square feet
maximum, using the same materials as the main house, off-street parking, etc. It
gets murky when one dictates an owner must live in the main house.
These rules were passed quickly and without much discussion to
comply with the less-restrictive state-mandated law. The question is: Did the
Council consider this as one solution to the housing affordability? Does the
Council really promote housing affordability or do they just give "lip service"?
Can a Granny Flat Be Built on a 5000 sq. ft. lot
without detriment to the neighbors?
The answer is yes and no. It depends on the
lot configuration and many other factors. The Council's fear is ill-founded for
1. Not everyone will want or need a second unit.
2. Some houses already take up most of the lot.
3. The layout of the lot prevents access.
4. No extra parking available.
5. Fear of neighbor's wrath.
6. Construction costs may exceed benefit.
Note: Current city regulations prohibit construction of new granny flats
in any year in which the rental apt. vacancy rate is above 5 %. They also allow
new construction of flats only in communities where public service such as
roads, parks, and water and sewer lines are found to be sufficient. Granny
flats are prohibited in coastal zones. Also, granny flats are allowed at no more
than 5 % of the single-family homes in any community. If a garage is converted
to a granny flat, regulations require construction of a new garage to replace
My comment: If these are still in effect, how can the Council possibly be
worried about "mini-dorms" and destruction of single family neighborhoods?
As far as granny flats being prohibited in coastal zones, look around! There may
be few legal units but the coastal areas abound with illegal units. Wouldn't it
be better to have units built to code?
Are Granny Flats One Solution to San Diego's Housing Problem?
Second units are one of the easier solutions for
affordable housing. Seniors can remain in their own homes and have a caretaker
or relative on the premises to help them. Widows and widowers can supplement
their income with a rental. College students who can not live in a dorm can live
close to a campus. Young people in their first jobs can rent a small place until
they build a nest egg. Singles employed in a service industry can live close to
work. Handicapped can have a place to live independently.
If we, as San Diegans, are truly concerned about housing and affordability, then
we need to work to find solutions and make our feelings known to the local
Find Out How Other California Cities Are Complying
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