Meet The Mayor - July 10, 2021

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San Diego extended state law in many critical and deleterious ways:

  • The number of ADUs now allowed outside transit priority areas (TPAs) is three, plus one JADU and the single-family home, for a total of five residences/addresses.

  • The number of ADUs now allowed inside TPAs is only limited by what can fit on a single-family lot. This overburdens infrastructure and encourages unwieldy and unsightly building configurations.

  • Building heights are allowed up to 30 feet, which means that three-story apartment towers can be built overlooking single and two-story homes.

  • Setbacks have been eliminated on rear and side property lines, even in high fire hazard zones.

  • Front yards can be turned into parking lots to accommodate the added cars, even in so-called Transit Priority Areas (TPAs). This is a tacit admission by San Diego planners that their effort to persuade residents to abandon their cars and adopt mass transit has been unsuccessful.

  • Developer fees are waived for all ADUs on a property, whereas the state requirement is to waive fees for only one ADU (up to 750 square foot). This starves the city of necessary revenue for infrastructure (parks, libraries, roads, water and sewers) to support additional residents.

To understand the growing backlash against the city’s regulations as new projects become visible in neighborhoods, it is helpful to start with the oft-promoted intention of the state law, which was to provide a homeowner an opportunity to add a small unit in their backyard or via a garage conversion, either to house a family member or as a small rental. The idea was that these units, euphemistically labeled “granny flats,” would be small in scale, consistent with the existing house, and minimally impactful on infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the City of San Diego failed to appreciate and respect the limited but acceptable scale of the state law. When San Diego eliminated setbacks and allowed ADUs up to 30 feet (three stories), these buildings became highly visible and intrusive upon neighboring properties. “Granny flats” became “granny towers.” What started as a way to make home ownership more affordable to residents and their relatives has become a purported solution for affordable housing and mass transit adoption, with low returns relative to real solutions to both of these problems. If anything, would-be homeowners are being driven out of the market as they are outbid by investors who can afford to redevelop and realize the substantial rents that these multi-unit apartments generate.

To make it easier to visualize the types of projects that are now permitted under San Diego's code, we have taken an actual 7500 sf lot in San Diego. The diagram on the left shows what is permitted under state law, the other two diagrams show examples of what would be permissable in San Diego. Note that the 16-unit ADU apartment building on the right has been vetted through multiple interviews with the Development Services Department. 

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Since today’s event was not conducive to a full discussion of the motivations and impacts of the ADU ordinance (141.0302) that was passed by the Council last October, we would like to present the issue ourselves.

This ordinance has been misrepresented to San Diego residents as merely implementing the State of California’s ADU law. This is simply not true, as has been extensively documented by Neighbors For A Better San Diego. The key differences between the state and city are summarized below:

To further highlight some key conclusions of our analysis:

  • The overdevelopment of single-family zoned lots, facilitated by the elimination of setbacks, disproportionate height allowances, and overreaching bonus densities, none of which were mandated by state law, is a significant threat to the character and quality of life of our neighborhoods. The city compounded the burden of these oversized developments by waiving the developer fees that pay for infrastructure, and for good measure, they overrode Prop H, which would have dedicated funds to long overdue improvements.

  • Data from the San Diego Housing Commission refute that ADUs will be a driver of affordable housing – if anything, the units that developers are most likely to build are at market or even above San Diego’s median rents. Worse, the Housing Commission’s own charts show that San Diego is already addressing the market that will be targeted (see below).

  • Renters are also losers under this policy, because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated by other cities, upzoning urban land results in appreciating land values and hence rising rents. At the same time, the developers who can afford to maximize return on investment crowd out would-be first-time homebuyers, permanently locking them into renter status.

Proponents of San Diego’s code changes, including Mayor Todd Gloria, claim that these bonuses, and the elimination of single-family neighborhoods in general, are necessary to address San Diego’s housing needs. However, the San Diego’s Housing Commission’s own data show that even the “affordable” units produced by this program ($1850 for a studio, $2093 for a 1-bedroom) are effectively market rate and out-of-reach to lower-income families who need it the most.

In talking to past and current councilmembers, there is general surprise of the extent to which San Diego’s code exceeds state requirements. Accordingly, we ask Mayor Gloria to provide full disclosure of the discussions that went into the creation of this ordinance, including whatever economic and policy analysis was used to justify it. As part of this accountability, we would like the Planning Department to meet with the public, including Neighbors For A Better San Diego, to answer our questions about the process and motivations of the ordinance change.

We are just starting to see multi-unit backyard apartments being built under San Diego’s 2020 code changes. Given that these projects will irreversibly change the character of our neighborhoods, it is important that the Council act quickly to rein in the excesses of these changes. In the short term, we are asking that the city put an immediate moratorium on the unmandated excesses of the city’s code, including and especially the density bonus specified in 141.0302(b)(2)(G). In parallel encourage the Mayor to meet with us to discuss our concerns and develop solutions to our housing needs that actually address our needs.

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