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San Diego’s proposed ‘tiny houses’ law has La Jollans worried about community character and feeling left out

An example of a "movable tiny house," a small house on wheels that can be purchased and placed on a property to be used as a detached companion unit.
(Courtesy of Phil Merten)

A proposed San Diego municipal code amendment that would allow “movable tiny houses” to fall under the state definition of an accessory dwelling unit has some La Jollans concerned as it works its way up the civic chain.

The small dwellings on wheels could provide more housing, but some are concerned with how the amendment would affect community character and where the movable houses could legally be placed on a property. Others are worried about what they see as a lack of community review.

According to a report from the city, a movable tiny house is “an accessory structure that is between 150 and 430 square feet in size on a residential lot that provides independent living facilities for one or more persons, independent of the primary dwelling unit, which includes permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation.”

La Jolla architect Phil Merten is locally spearheading the effort to inform the community about the proposed amendment.

“The state of California, in an effort to provide more housing opportunities, encourages cities to adopt a companion unit ordinance,” he said. “The mobile tiny house industry has been pushing their concept of a providing lower-cost housing opportunities by building a small house on wheels that can be purchased and wheeled onto your property that would be allowed as a detached companion unit.”

The amendment is championed by San Diego City Council member Scott Sherman, whose chief of staff, Barrett Tetlow, said, “The real value is [movable tiny houses] are basically an ADU [accessory dwelling unit], but a cheaper version of an ADU that are shipped to you. You can get a cheap one for $40,000, and the average is $75,000.”

But Merten said his main concern for La Jolla is how the movable houses would impact community character.

“We have community plans in the coastal zone, and the community plans talk about community character,” he said. “If someone builds a conventional companion unit in a neighborhood in the coastal zone, it goes through an approval process where someone looks at the design and sees if it relates to the main house and retains community character. The problem with these mobile homes is they are purchased out of a catalog or off a parking lot somewhere and wheeled in and the character may not be appropriate for the neighborhood.”

The only design criteria for movable tiny houses is that they be one story; that materials used on the exterior exclude single-piece composite, laminates or interlocked metal sheathing; that windows be at least double-pane glass, labeled for building use and include exterior trim; that roofs be sloped to drain over the edge; and that the roof and all exterior walls not be fixed with slide-outs, tip-outs or similar forms of area extensions.

“Nothing about the design character of the building,” Merten said.

He’s also concerned about where movable tiny houses could safely be located on a property.

“You can put a companion unit on the property line, provided the exterior wall has a one-hour fire protection rating, which means should a fire erupt inside the unit, it would take an hour to burn through the exterior wall and set fire to the building next door,” Merten said. “Under the new regulation, someone could put a movable tiny home on the property line, but it does not have to be built to the same one-hour fire protection rating standard. That, to me, is a major safety hazard.”

, In addition, he said, options for heating a movable tiny house include propane. Merten said a standard model would take a 30- to 50-gallon tank to heat.

“Those tanks may not be stored next to a movable tiny home; they have to have a 10-foot separation from the main house, any combustible fencing and any combustible materials. So where are these tanks going to be located?” he said.

The San Diego Planning Commission approved the proposed amendment on a 6-0 vote April 16, and it will proceed to the City Council. A council hearing has not yet been scheduled.

La Jolla resident and Community Planning Association trustee Dave Ish said he’s concerned that the amendment is being pushed through without local review.

“Being on the Community Planning Association, my concern was that none of the community planning groups had the chance to comment,” Ish said. “This seems to be totally promoted by the industry. ... All these promotional materials show them in a woodsy area or by a pristine lake … but there was nothing that showed them in someone’s back yard next to a single-family residence. That raised the question of where these things can even be put and are they even viable in some of the areas of San Diego?

“If they had taken the time to run this past the community planning groups, they would have been able to tell them whether their area was suitable for something like this. Instead, they came out with a blanket ordinance that covers the city.”

“Why they slammed and pushed this through, I don’t know,” Ish added. “We need to find better solutions to the affordable housing issue. This might be a solution, but I think it’s being oversold.”

Tetlow said there is no plan to present the amendment to local community planning groups.

Addressing the criticism that the matter is being rushed, he said it has been in the works since November 2018 and, as a legislative item, is not required to go before local boards.

Tetlow added that cities up and down the state are adopting similar ordinances.

Should the amendment be approved by the City Council, it would proceed to the California Coastal Commission for a review of its potential effects on coastal communities such as La Jolla.

The proposal also is on the agenda of the La Jolla Community Planning Association meeting on Thursday, May 7.