San Diego Set To Make It Easier To Build ‘Granny Flats’

by Claire Trageser

Nicole Capretz said she is not much of a gardener, so she has been eyeing her backyard for a different purpose: to build a small "granny flat" she could rent out.

"This is a perfect opportunity to build some housing for San Diegans," said Capretz, the director of the environmental nonprofit Climate Action Campaign.

She has lived in her Kensington home for more than 10 years and in the past looked into building a separate companion unit, as the small homes built on a homeowner's property are officially called. But the cost was prohibitive.

"I would have moved forward at this point already, but once I realized I'd have to get a loan and it would be much more expensive and my return on investment would take much longer, I felt like I wasn't as motivated," she said.

That could soon change. In January, new state laws went into effect meant to make it easier for homeowners like Capretz to build granny flats.

This week, the San Diego City Council's Smart Growth and Land Use Committee unanimously recommended the city change its codes to match the new state laws, and added additional measures to further incentive granny flat construction.

Under the proposed rule changes, the companion units could be up to 1,200 square feet, but if they are attached to the existing home than they cannot be more than half the size of that home.

They would not be subject to additional water or sewer fees, and extra parking would not be required if the homes are less than 500 square feet or close to public transportation or a bike share station.

The city also added a "junior unit" category of flats less than 500 square feet which do not require a separate bathroom, but do need a small kitchen.

The committee recommended granny flats require a minimum 30-day rental period and that the main house be occupied by the owner.

There are several advantages to encouraging granny flat construction, according to a city staff report. The flats can be cheap and easy to build, have lower carbon footprints, bring in extra money for homeowners, encourage walking and public transportation if they are built in the right areas, and most importantly ease the crunch on the city's housing supply.

Those reasons resonate with Capretz, an environmentalist.

"I want to do my part and if I'm not using this back yard, and it's prime land in a prime location, let's address this housing crisis and offer housing to people that's affordable," she said.

But at the San Diego City Council's Smart Growth and Land Use Committee meeting Wednesday, some College Area homeowners voiced concerns over the proposed changes.

College Area Community Planning Board Chair Rhea Coleman said in her neighborhood, there are lots of homes that house multiple college students, which compromises parking.

She asked for an addition to the plan that would restrict the number of bedrooms on properties just in the College Area.

The full City Council will consider a more detailed plan later this summer.

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