San Diego’s granny flat ‘handbook’ aims to eliminate confusion, encourage construction

A granny flat in Clairemont.
(U-T File Photo)

The 42-page guide is part of city’s effort to solve housing affordability crisis


San Diego has created a 42-page granny flat handbook to encourage more property owners to construct such housing units by making the process easier to understand.

Granny flats, which are additional housing units on an existing property, are being viewed in San Diego and across the nation as a way to create more housing without more land or infrastructure.

City officials say granny flats are the fastest and cheapest way to grow the local supply of affordable housing, prompting them to create the handbook so fewer people will be intimidated or confused by the process.

The handbook explains zoning rules, parking requirements, the city’s approval process and the details of a subsidy program the city established last year.

It also covers how to secure a city permit, how far from property lines a granny flat must be built, how the units might affect property taxes, whether a unit can be sold and when the property owner must live on-site.

“These are the things people don’t think about when they decide to put one of these in,” said City Councilman Scott Sherman, who has spearheaded city legislation on granny flats.

The city collaborated on the handbook with the San Diego Housing Federation, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and the Pacific Southwest Association of Realtors. The city’s formal name for a granny flat is an accessory dwelling unit, or a companion unit.

“Companion units are an important tool that will create naturally occurring affordable housing units that are desperately needed in San Diego,” said Stephen Russell, Housing Federation executive director.

Ricardo Flores, executive director of LISC, said the handbook could be particularly helpful in low-income areas.

“The region’s housing crisis is a serious issue that hurts San Diego’s disadvantaged the most,” he said. “Companion Units will give residents in disinvested neighborhoods more options to improve housing affordability and better options to offset the cost of a mortgage.”

Sherman said the handbook will be followed by a companion guide this fall featuring a series of pre-approved design templates to reduce architecture costs and streamline the approval process.

“You pick up one of the pre-approved templates and you just build it and get it inspected and call it a day,” he said.

Encinitas recently began providing a similar set of templates to encourage construction of granny flats there.

Granny flats are considered ideal for recent college graduates, young people with lower-paying jobs and the senior citizens on fixed incomes who gave these units their colorful name.

In addition to boosting the local housing supply, granny flats generate income for homeowners that decrease the likelihood they will struggle to pay their mortgage.

A recent analysis of the city’s 236,000 single-family detached homes estimated that 2,700 to 5,500 granny flats could be built during the next decade.

The city’s efforts build on state legislation three years ago that eased parking regulations and rules requiring large buffer areas between structures and property lines.

San Diego has since eliminated sewer and water fees, shrunk development fees and loosened zoning regulations for granny flats.

Because some fees, such as those covering school construction, couldn’t be waived under state law, San Diego also established a subsidy program during the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The $300,000 set aside for the program was exhausted quickly and played a role in the construction of 84 granny flats across the city, so the City Council more than doubled funding to $800,000 for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Meanwhile, the city’s Housing Commission is launching a separate pilot program to build 40 granny flats adjacent to single-family homes on properties that the commission owns.

The new units, which could be constructed before the end of the year, will be geared for low-income tenants and include a variety of sizes and designs. The goal is analyzing costs, timelines, the construction process and potential hurdles.

The commission plans to use that information to launch a loan program next spring to help low-income households build granny flats on their properties.

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