Young executive takes up Granny Flats cause in San Diego and California

Caitlin Bigelow
Caitlin Bigelow
( Courtesy)

Thinking of building a secondary housing structure on your property? It’s now easier in California to do so, thanks to 2017 legislation. And in San Diego it’s less expensive, since the City Council voted in April to waive Development Impact Fees, Facility Benefit Assessment Fees and General Plan Maintenance Fees for the construction of “companion units.”

Despite these changes, however, many property owners still find the process of planning and building an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) overwhelming and confusing. Even the name can be confusing — they’re also referred to as a granny flat, mother-in-law quarter, in-law suite, secondary residence, companion unit, rental unit, guest house, casita or tiny home.

Recognizing a need to cut through the confusion (and a good business opportunity), Caitlin Bigelow decided to form Maxable Space. Her company offers online and in-person resources for those thinking of building granny flats, from evaluating costs and benefits, navigating regulations, planning space, choosing a design and hiring architects and contractors. She said she quit her job as a marketing executive and started her company earlier this year after seeing two of her mother’s friends abandon plans to build granny units because they couldn’t figure out the regulations.

“No one was providing education to homeowners; where could they turn?” said Bigelow, who grew up in La Mesa and now lives in University Heights. “I realized I could be the go-between, making a complex process into what people can understand.” So far, her company sports a full-time employee and several interns and contractors, and has helped several people across San Diego. She plans to expand to Northern California next year.

Located in Vancouver, British Columbia, this granny flat is an example of a stand-along unit built behind a main house.
Located in Vancouver, British Columbia, this granny flat is an example of a stand-along unit built behind a main house.
( Courtesy )

A granny flat or ADU is defined as existing on a single-family property, containing a living space, bathroom and kitchen, being smaller than the main house and coming in several structural forms such as over the garage, converted garage, stand-alone or basement or attic conversion.

The reasons for adding them vary, according to Bigelow. A young family with a home might want extra rental income and increased property value. A middle-aged person or couple might want to build affordable housing for an elderly relative or friend. Older people who decide to “age in place” might build a secondary unit for a caregiver, or live in the secondary unit themselves and rent out the main house for more income. Currently in San Diego, main houses can be listed as short-term vacation rentals, but granny flats cannot.

The fastest and most cost-effective solution is a garage conversion, according to Bigelow. Building up or building a whole new structure is more expensive than retaining the existing structure of a garage. It also pays to use the maximum space allowed, which brings down the overall cost per square foot (in San Diego, costs are between $220 and $350 a square foot).

Bigelow admits that prospective granny unit builders often underestimate costs and suffer sticker shock. She encourages customers to think long-term. “It’s not a get rich quick scheme, but over a 30-year period, it could bring in $1.5 million, increase property value.”

Although granny flats have been around for decades (many illegally), it wasn’t until last year that California passed pioneering legislation to override or reduce many City restrictions or outright bans on granny units. California SB1069 was co-authored Sen. Bob Wieckowski , D-Fremont, Assemblymember Richard Bloom , D-Santa Monica and Sen. Toni Atkins , D-San Diego to address the affordable housing shortage. Cities can still pass ordinances that set design guidelines and require minimum-sized lots, but they cannot prevent building ADUs or impose overly burdensome restrictions.

In some neighborhoods, residents are not happy that these additional homes are increasing traffic and reducing parking. Parking requirements for granny units continue to be worked out.

But affordable housing advocates, including Bigelow, think the advantages of building granny units outweigh the disadvantages. As she points out, California has nearly 8 million single-family homes. If only 10 percent of homeowners build an ADU, that adds 800,000 units of housing without any cost or burden to the state. And it builds better communities by increasing revenue for schools, parks, roads and local businesses and allowing renters to have more options.