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Deregulating San Diego

The Bonus ADU Program

How San Diego exploited California's Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) law

Not your granny's granny flat.

Bonus ADUs in front and backyards of residential neighborhoods.

In 2020, San Diego's Development Services Department created a loophole to allow high-density development on single-family parcels without changing the underlying zoning. Former City Planning Director Mike Hansen bragged about this loophole when interviewed by Voice of San Diego a year later:

“...when other cities like Minneapolis and Seattle were doing press events around ending single-family zoning, we felt like we had functionally already done so through ADU reform...”

The "reform" (loophole) is the Bonus ADU program. It overrides local zoning and incentivizes developers to turn single-family homes into high-density apartment complexes, even in high-risk fire areas. San Diego stealthily pulled this off by exploiting the state's 2019 Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) allowance of a single ADU in the backyards of single-family homes.



The details of San Diego's Bonus ADU program were buried on page 5 of the 2020 Planning Department Staff Report, while page 1 declared that the proposal was implementing state law. To the Councilmembers reading the report, it implied that everything that followed was required by the state.


The Council then rubber-stamped the program without asking meaningful questions or parsing the consequences. Instead, they congratulated the presenter and moved on.


The lack of clarifying questions allowed Development Services to reinterpret this ambiguous code into granting an extra market-rate ADU, which Councilmembers didn't foresee.


We later discovered that several Councilmembers who voted for the Bonus ADU program were unaware of how much this proposal had upzoned single-family neighborhoods and assumed the program was mandated by state law.


Not creating meaningful affordable housing

The Bonus ADU program does not produce truly affordable housing. The units rent at market rates or to those who earn up to 110% of San Diego County's median income ($89,950 for a one-person household). Of the 98 Bonus ADU projects permitted to date, 60% have targeted single-family starter homes — forever removing those homes from San Diego's limited inventory.


This program is inflating the cost of land and starter homes, not lowering rents. The ruse behind the Bonus ADU program is that it's simply a stealthy way to open up single-family neighborhoods to outside investors.


A reasonable ADU consensus

To be clear, Neighbors For A Better San Diego has never taken issue with the California allowance of a single ADU in the backyard of a residential home. Owners who live on their properties typically construct ADUs that complement the surrounding neighborhood, adding an absorbable increase in density.


San Diego should be focused on creating vibrant boulevards that support livable, walkable housing and retail instead of randomly dropping density bombs in single-family neighborhoods — up to a mile away from future transit (that may never be built).


Let's not kid ourselves

Trojan Horse land-use policies such as the Bonus ADU program, SB 10, and Complete Communities are written with developers for developers. These policies make homeownership in San Diego even less likely while developers are seizing a profitable opportunity set aside just for them. Our city's housing goals can be achieved without the corporate takeover of San Diego's neighborhoods.


SDAs and the lawsuit

The Sustainable Development Area (SDA) is where these harmful policies are being implemented. The lawsuit we are supporting contests the validity of the SDA.

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Neighbors For A Better San Diego is a grassroots organization formed to bring homeowners back into the discussion of urban development. We seek the creation of policies that benefit homeowners, renters, small businesses, and other stakeholders.

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