By Dave Schwab
New granny-flat rules create opportunity, controversy
The city has made it easier — and less expensive — to create “granny flat” companion units to help alleviate the housing crunch, which is inviting blowback from some neighborhoods, like Allied Gardens in the Navajo area.
Case in point: A companion unit now under construction by Jim and Amy Bennett in their front yard at 6306 Seaman St.
The Bennetts say they are doing nothing extraordinary with their property.
“We are developing an accessory dwelling unit on our property in accordance with the recent changes in California law and city regulations,” said Jim Bennett. “We have both sets of our parents with issues of declining health and ability. We are relieved to be able to offer them help in this time of their lives. We have worked with our architect to design the new unit to match the architecture of our existing house. We are thankful that the law changes have afforded us this opportunity.”
Issues surrounding granny-flat companion units are surfacing in the aftermath of a recent, unanimous vote by the City Council, with Councilmember David Alvarez absent, to cut fees by more than 60 percent on granny flats. Previously, homeowners had been paying upwards of $40,000 alone in government fees prior to constructing such companion units.
Both District 7 Councilmember Scott Sherman, who chairs a council committee dealing with land-use issues, and Mayor Kevin Faulconer, were onboard leading the charge on granny-flat streamlining and cost-cutting.
“With these new incentives, we’re removing barriers to encourage the construction of new units that San Diegans can actually afford,” Faulconer said. “The only way to change that is to build more housing that people can actually afford.”
Concluded Faulconer, “Hardworking folks who love San Diego and want to live in San Diego should not be priced out of San Diego.”
Characterizing San Diego’s housing affordability crisis as “the top issue facing our city,” Sherman concurred with Faulconer, contending housing shortages are “literally forcing the next generation of San Diegans to move outside the region.”
Following the council’s granny-flat vote, Faulconer noted other changes to help homeowners design and build granny-flat companion units are coming. He is hopeful the effort will collectively add at least 2,000 new units to the city’s housing stock by 2028.
The mayor’s office has also pointed out that more than 70 percent of San Diegans can’t afford to buy a home at the county’s median home cost of more than $550,000. That makes San Diego one of the most expensive housing markets in the country.
But not everyone is all in on the new changes governing granny flats. One detractor is Bennett neighbor and longtime Navajo community planner Marilyn Reed, who sees granny flats as an unwanted intrusion on the sanctity of her single-family neighborhood.
Describing the Bennetts as good neighbors and a nice couple, Reed said she does not disagree with their building a companion unit, but rather “how” they’re going about it.
“They could build it with an attached unit to the back or side of their home,” Reed said. “But instead, they’re building a completely separate unit on their front lawn.”
Reed fears others taking advantage of new, more-relaxed granny-flat regulations may signal the beginning of the end of single-family neighborhoods as San Diegans have known them.
“You put a granny flat in a single-family neighborhood in the front yard — and it changes the whole dynamic of the neighborhood,” she claimed adding, “granny flats can be rentals. I want to live in a single-family home in a single-family neighborhood. If I wanted to live in a very dense neighborhood — there are other places in the city I could have chosen to live.”
Reed has a partial answer for what she believes needs to be done to address what she views as loopholes in existing regulations governing companion units.
“The city needs to take another look at their regulations,” she said. “Instead of making them so lax, they need to put some more restrictions on where these granny flats are being built. They should not be built on the front lawn of somebody’s home. The city needs to go back and change some of these regulations to have more control over these granny flats, so they don’t do to single-family neighborhoods what they’re doing to them now. This is really causing the single-family neighborhood to become extinct.”
Cautioned Reed about current granny-flat regulations, “There are no regulations from the city saying it has to be affordable, and regulations overseeing how they are being built now are non-existent.”
Concluded Reed, “It’s one thing to put in changes making it easier for people to put granny flats in. It’s another thing to put them in front yards, where you have two dwellings very close to each other, which lends an extremely dense appearance to the neighborhood.”
If the growth and regulation of granny flats remains unchecked in Allied Gardens, Reed said: “We may end up not having the single-family neighborhood we bought into many years ago.”
— Dave Schwab is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.