‘Granny Flats’ Are Destroying San Diego Neighborhoods

by on September 8, 2021 · 7 comments

in San Diego

Increases in population density must also consider infrastructure, such as sewer limitations, traffic conditions and water supply.

By Annalisa Berta / San Diego Union-Tribune OpEd / Aug. 31, 2021

Single-family zoning — made popular more than 100 years ago — is challenging, and few would dispute that a thriving city must address the housing needs of all of its residents. Yet cities differ demographically and in how they approach building homes. Like many cities in California, San Diego has a housing shortage that has contributed to skyrocketing rents and home prices. But its response is making matters worse.

At issue is San Diego’s adoption of its accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance in October, purportedly to help the housing crisis by changing zoning in transit priority areas (TPAs) and allowing the construction of unlimited multiple ADUs or backyard “granny flats” — more like “granny towers” — if the property is within a half mile of a TPA. For reference, 60 percent of San Diego residents live in a TPA.

Since 2016, approvals of ADU construction in San Diego have increased at an alarming rate of more than 965 percent, with little concern for their long-term effects on neighborhoods. Among the zoning giveaways for these backyard “granny towers” are no setbacks on side and rear yards, no parking required and green space replaced with concrete. The “towers” can be 30 feet high (two-to-three stories) and house up to six families crammed next to mostly single-story family homes.

The new zoning policy is destroying our neighborhoods. Increased density comes with limitations on the “carrying capacity” of the land. Existing zoning policies that allow housing at any cost are not the solution. Increases in population density must also consider existing infrastructure, such as sewer limitations, traffic conditions and water supply. Moreover, the loss of open green spaces in neighborhoods already lacking parks adds to greenhouse gas buildup.

City planners hope that local zoning regulations in San Diego will result in more residents biking, walking or using public transportation to get to work. But this is an aspirational goal, rather than a realistic one. Most San Diego residents own at least one car and drive to work. According to 2016 data, only 6 percent of residents lack a vehicle. And even before the pandemic sharply reduced ridership on public transportation, it decreased by nearly 5 percent in San Diego from 2000 to 2016. Rather than assume increased population density in TPAs is the solution, we should acknowledge that public transportation is not a better choice for various reasons, including lack of express trains, slow travel speeds, etc.

San Diego leaders also hope that the current zoning policy will result in an increase in the housing supply, thereby decreasing housing prices and increasing affordability. But is this true? The experiences of other cities that have tried this suggest that neighborhood multistory units become investor-owned properties that are, in fact, not more affordable and are not homeowner projects. Nor are developers invested in the community. In addition, with average rents in San Diego exceeding $2,300 a month, these multistory ADUs do not help our “affordable housing crisis.” Assuming average housing costs of 30 percent of family income, even area median income families in San Diego making $95,100 a year would have their household budgets stretched to afford to live in these ADUs.

Bottom line: Yes, these ADUs provide more housing, but not “affordable housing.” There is a housing shortage in San Diego but not at the income level that these ADUs will supply. Instead, proposed market-rate ADUs will add surplus housing units to the moderate income category, not to the income levels where there is a housing shortage.

As a Mid-City resident, I am aware of numerous available commercial land parcels and vacant lots on El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue much closer to public transit than residential single-family neighborhoods. Why not build multistory units on this land first before permanently altering single-family neighborhoods?

Along with creative approaches to the housing crisis, we also need city leaders willing to work with residents to provide details on their intentions, and assurances that their policies will produce their intended outcomes. More distressing than the current local zoning policy is Senate Bill 9, written by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, that has passed both the Senate and Assembly and now goes to the Senate for concurrence and then onto Gov. Gavin Newsom for signature into law. Senate Bill 9 is the next step in the agenda of moving all city zoning and planning decisions to Sacramento, allowing existing single-family parcels to be divided and then filled with multiple housing units on each new parcel.

Clearly, we need fairness and equity in housing while maintaining our excellent parks, schools and neighborhoods. San Diego’s housing crisis is an opportunity for innovative thinking and communication between both residents and policy makers to develop thoughtful solutions to this complex issue.

The creation of sustainable housing — while maintaining the surrounding natural environment — is a worthy goal that must be incorporated into our urban planning process. The urgency of the housing crisis requires careful planning and citizen participation in the process, not housing decisions pushed on us!

Annalisa Berta is a professor emerita of biology at San Diego State University, lives in Talmadge and is a proponent for Neighbors for a Better San Diego.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Webb September 8, 2021 at 10:37 am

This writer gets two things exactly right.

First, transit ridership was declining in California cities even before the pandemic. Both LA and the bay area have been experiencing a decline in transit trips for years. And now, in post pandemic America, who really wants to get on a crowded bus, trolley of other transit vehicle?

Second building more housing is not going to solve the affordability crisis, it is only going to result in more housing. When you look at the cost of constructing housing, it is clear that any kind of market rate housing will not be affordable to persons of low and moderate income. A mini-loft (called a “sit-up” loft, meaning, I guess that you cannot stand up in the loft portion of the apartment) in the new Haven development on W. Point Loma rents for $1,475 per month. The HUD guidelines for affordability mean that the renter of this apartment would have to make about $4,900 per month, or about $58K per year. I haven’t done an exhaustive survey or new rental properties, but I doubt that there is anyone building market rate housing in this area for any less than the Haven is charging. Now, granted, this is Point Loma, which is going to rent for a premium compared to less desirable neighborhoods, but it is one of the areas targeted for a radical increase in density. Again, who is building for the minimum wage worker, even if we get to $15/ hour, who could afford about half what the Haven is charging? My guess is nobody.


Tessa September 8, 2021 at 3:54 pm

One way to achieve affordable housing is to take it off the commercial market. Unlike public housing, co-op housing can achieve this goal. Check out The Sustainable Economies Law Project in Oakland in this regard. It takes determination and a mayor who is willing to look “outside the box” and beyond commercial developers to accomplish. Will Mayor Gloria be such a one?


Basic September 8, 2021 at 9:28 pm

I disagree on a few things:
– The graph is way too complicated and I can’t figure out what it is telling me.
– If we have increased demand with no increase in supply the price will increase. By adding more supply with same demand we should see a decrease in price. Right?

– I don’t think the multi-story unit on El Cajon Blvd. concept is enough to handle San Diego County demand and the law really is trying to support all communities.

– Living in a TPA for the last 24 years I appreciate the new rules as a resident and future builder. I like trying to reward a builder for providing living space instead of parking a hunk of metal. It’s innovative and will press public/private transport supply.

Thank you


Paul Webb September 9, 2021 at 11:40 am

What this graph is telling you is that there are shortages of rental housing appropriate for some income levels but surpluses in others. There are shortages in the extremely low income household and above moderate income household categories, but a surplus rental housing in the low to moderate income household categories. The other thing is purports to tell you is that the optimum return on investment for money spent on the construction of ADUs is in the housing for persons of moderate income, which, I have to admit, does not make a lot of sense to me. I’d need to get into the housing commission’s assumptions and methodology to figure out how they come to this conclusion. Maybe I’ll get off my lazy butt and do that, but no promises.

The take-away message that I get from this is that the greatest need for housing is in housing appropriate for very low income households. I know this from anecdotal experience when a family member relocated to Banning (not a great place to live) because she could no longer afford to rent in San Diego on her limited income.

So, if we have a real problem, how do we solve it? Allowing private development of ADUs is not going to satisfy the unmet demand for very low income households, as it is going to rented at market rates, which the very low income households cannot afford to pay. If we believe in smart investors and efficient markets, we’re going to build for the moderate income households, because that is where the greatest return on investment will be. Eventually we can hope that market forces might (stress on might) result in some housing trickling down to the lower income households, whose housing might trickle down to very low income households, but I have always believed the hope is not a good strategy.

Your final point has to do with TPAs. Remember, about 60% of San Diegans live in TPAs, and I don’t see many of us giving up our cars for transit and bikes. Also, remember most of us own those hunks of metal, and we will still need to have a place to put them.

My general feeling about transit is that everybody really wants to have good transit. The two problems are that (1) nobody wants to pay for it and (2) they want somebody other than themselves to ride it.


Basic September 14, 2021 at 9:14 pm

Thank you Paul.


Paul September 9, 2021 at 9:12 am

“Put all new Mid-City housing on just two streets” is unrealistic when Regional Housing Needs Assessment calls for thousands of new units here.

We need to use any and every tool to increase housing supply, including multi-story buildings on transit corridors. But these are more expensive to build per unit than ADUs due to their height, and then you have housing opponents demand *all* units be affordable (see Bay Park residents re: trolley station housing), and have expensive off-street parking. The net result, which we’ve seen over the past decades, is that little to nothing gets built. This nitpicking is a key reason we’re in a housing crisis in the first place.

We’ve seen less than 200 new units on the north side of El Cajon Boulevard in the past 20 years, and even those were opposed for insufficient parking – and demanded the city widen a deadly Vision Zero corridor. https://www.kpbs.org/news/2021/sep/07/san-diego-pledged-shift-cars-widening-roads/


paul September 9, 2021 at 9:24 am

I’m referring to the north side of El Cajon Boulevard in Mid-City above. We have seen more construction on ECB to the west, fortunately. But even there it’s still too small of an area to make a significant impact, which is why North Park’s Community Plan Update allows for multi-story housing one or two blocks deep from ECB.

KenTal Planning group opposes that approach north of ECB.


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