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San Diego council OKs large package of housing incentives, including accessory units

An accessory dwelling unit in La Jolla is pictured in June.
(Sandy Huffaker)

Critics of the plan say it doesn’t do enough to tighten the city’s ADU rules.

The San Diego City Council approved a sweeping package of housing incentives and regulation changes aiming to spur construction of more housing units while helping the city avoid dramatic changes to neighborhood character.

The council voted 8-1 on Feb. 8 in favor of the housing package that Mayor Todd Gloria calls “Homes for All of Us.”

The package somewhat rolls back San Diego’s rules for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, also often referred to as “granny flats.” San Diego’s rules are believed to be among the loosest in the state.

The action also softens the potential impact of a state law that allows up to four dwelling units on many single-family lots. Property owners who take advantage of the law — Senate Bill 9 — are now prohibited from using any of the city’s ADU incentives.

The package includes seven new incentives to spur construction, including allowing housing projects to be built in conjunction with new libraries and fire stations on public land.

State laws overriding local rules restricting density and increased hurdles to building in high-risk fire zones are shaping development

Other incentives include making it easier for businesses to build onsite housing for their workers, incentives for developers who build larger “family” units with three or more bedrooms, and encouragement to build units geared for people with disabilities.

“The failure to create new homes to accommodate the population growth we have long known was coming has been disastrous for our families, regional economy and quality of life,” Gloria said after the council’s vote. “I thank the City Council for approving this sensible package of reforms to meaningfully address our housing shortage.”

Many city residents spoke strongly against the package, contending it doesn’t tighten the city’s loose ADU rules enough to preserve neighborhood character.

Last fall, an umbrella organization representing neighborhood planning groups — the Community Planners Committee — voted to support stronger ADU reforms than the package includes.

Many of the residents who spoke said supporting the package could cost many council members their jobs.

Critics say the city’s rules for ADUs will destroy single-family neighborhoods.

“Single-family homes are part of the American dream, and we don’t want our single-family lots converted into crowded apartment complexes,” said resident Kerry Schlossberg.

Gary Kent said the city should strive to preserve “beloved” single-family neighborhoods.

“A few ADUs here and there are OK, but please don’t ruin ‘America’s Finest City’ by turning us into Los Angeles!” he said.

Other speakers said the ADU rules, most of which were approved by the council in November 2020, threaten to sharply reduce middle-class homeownership in favor of investors who can afford to build multiple ADUs.

San Diego allows one “bonus” ADU for every rent-restricted ADU a property owner builds, an unusual incentive that could allow several ADUs on properties that previously had just one single-family home.

In January, when the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee approved the proposed package, Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said he agreed with a lot of the issues raised by neighbors. “This is going to be painful — let’s not kid ourselves. We’re talking about a fundamental change in how many of our neighborhoods were built.”

However, LaCava said proposals for tighter restrictions on ADUs would slow city efforts to solve the housing crisis too significantly for him to support them.

Other supporters of the package, including the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said something must be done to increase housing production or young people won’t be able to raise families in the city.

Councilman Stephen Whitburn said the package would help solve what he said is the city’s No. 1 problem: homelessness.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said the package could help desegregate neighborhoods by bringing more affordable housing to high-income areas that have been out of reach for many minorities.

But Elo-Rivera and Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe demanded two concessions from Gloria’s staff before they agreed to support the package.

One concession seeks to fight investor ownership of lots with ADUs by waiving developer impact fees when the owner of a property with ADUs agrees to live there for at least three years.

The other concession is giving developers a second way to qualify for the city’s ADU bonus: Make one ADU affordable to someone earning 80 percent of the area median income for 10 years. Property owners have been required to make the ADU affordable to someone earning 110 percent of the area median income for 15 years.

The area’s median income is $77,600 for a family of two.

Gloria’s staff agreed to send the 80 percent alternative to the council between March 8 and May 23.

Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert cast the lone dissenting vote. She praised the package overall but raised concerns about wildfire hazards, parking problems and how the city defines which properties are close enough to mass transit to qualify for the incentives. ◆