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La Jolla area doesn’t echo big surge in ‘granny flat’ construction in other parts of San Diego

An example of an accessory dwelling unit, or "granny flat."
(American Institute of Architects)

The number of new “granny flats” approved and completed in the La Jolla area in recent years is much smaller than in most of San Diego’s other City Council districts as the citywide number continued an upward surge in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

New city figures show that since San Diego and the state began loosening regulations five years ago, construction of accessory dwelling units — popularly known as granny flats — in the city climbed from nine built in 2016 to 386 in 2020. The increase has been steady: 13 in 2017, 61 in 2018 and 202 in 2019. An ADU is a self-contained living space on the property of another home.

Approvals of such units followed a similar trend. The 14 granny flats approved in 2016 climbed to 19 in 2017, 237 in 2018, 501 in 2019 and 541 in 2020.

San Diego granny flat surge continues

In San Diego’s nine council districts, the strongest surges have been in Districts 2, 3 and 9. Since 2016, 185 have been built in District 9, which includes San Diego State University; 131 in District 3, which includes downtown and surrounding areas like North Park; and 101 in District 2, which includes Pacific Beach, Point Loma, Ocean Beach and Clairemont.

On the other end of the scale are the city’s two most wealthy council districts. Just 34 granny flats have been built in District 1, which includes La Jolla, University City and Carmel Valley, and only 12 in District 5, which includes Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch.

Pacific Beach-based architect Tim Golba said detached ADUs of up to 1,200 square feet, “that people want to build,” still require a coastal development permit to be built in the coastal zone, which can take months and cost thousands of dollars to obtain.

“That’s why you don’t see them in La Jolla as often; people are worried about the time and money it takes to get a CDP,” Golba said. “I’m sure there are people who have gotten a CDP in five to six months, but with the city being backlogged and dealing with the pandemic, it could go double that.”

Further, as part of the CDP process, La Jolla applicants must present to the local Development Permit Review Committee, get its approval and then get the approval of the La Jolla Community Planning Association.

City officials attributed the overall surge to loosened regulations, simplified approvals and fee reductions but said additional efforts are underway to encourage even more granny flat construction in more parts of the city.

Councilwoman Vivian Moreno credited city officials for promoting the program and former council members Scott Sherman and David Alvarez for spearheading efforts to loosen regulations.

“There are hundreds of places for people to live that didn’t exist a few years ago,” Moreno said during a meeting of the council’s Land Use and Housing Committee.

New rules eliminate fees, soften parking requirements, force homeowners associations to loosen restrictions

City officials call granny flats the cheapest and fastest way to help solve the local housing affordability crisis. The smaller-than-normal homes are considered ideal for recent college graduates, young people with lower-paying jobs and senior citizens on fixed incomes (thus the units’ colorful name).

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

San Diego has expanded the types of zones where granny flats can be built, eliminated parking requirements and created a program to allow property owners to build one bonus granny flat for each one they build with rent restrictions.

The city also has tried to reduce architecture costs by allowing property owners to use more than a dozen preapproved designs created by the city of Encinitas and the county government.

The California Coastal Commission is considering a city proposal that would streamline approvals in the coastal zone.

The city’s granny flat handbook can be found at sandiego.gov/sites/default/files/2019-companion-unit-handbook.pdf.

The city’s granny flat web page, which includes the preapproved designs, is at sandiego.gov/department/companionjunior-units.

— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report.