From the U-T:

San Diego’s rapid increase in granny flat construction since 2018 may accelerate even further thanks to a series of new state laws that loosen a variety of regulations, city officials said this week.

The state has eliminated sewer and water fees for most granny flats — saving homeowners thousands of dollars — and it shrank approval timelines in half and waived requirements that parking spots be replaced if a garage or carport is demolished to make way for a granny flat.

The new laws also force single-family neighborhoods to lift rules prohibiting granny flats, create a five-year grace period for code violations, and expand the size of the multifamily properties that can construct granny flats on site.

In addition, the state softened regulations on “junior granny flats,” which can’t be free-standing and must be located within an existing structure. Junior units can now be built in garages, and a property owner can now have both a granny flat and a junior granny flat on the same site.

The new laws, which took effect Jan. 1, come shortly after San Diego made it cheaper and easier to build granny flats with two key innovations.

The city last fall began providing several pre-approved design plans that property owners can use to accelerate permitting and save thousands of dollars on architectural work.

And last summer, San Diego created a 42-page granny flat handbook summarizing options for property owners so they could see conceptual floor plans and determine what would fit well on their property.

Those moves have put San Diego at the forefront in California if encouraging construction of granny flats to help solve the local housing affordability crisis, said Gary Geiler, deputy director of the city’s Development Services Department.

Geiler said the looser state regulations, which have already drawn significant interest from local property owners despite the COVID-19 pandemic, are likely to spur even more granny flat construction.

Over the last four years, the number of granny flat applications received by the city increased from 19 in 2016, to 142 in 2017, to 409 in 2018 and to 629 in 2019.

Granny flats, which city officials formally call “companion units,” are considered ideal for recent college graduates, young people with lower-paying jobs and the senior citizens on fixed incomes who gave these units their colorful name.

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

City regulations prohibit renting out a granny flat for less than 30 days, to avoid the units being used as short-term vacation rentals.

While parking requirements are minimal, Geiler said, most people building granny flats still provide parking spots because that increases the demand for their unit.

San Diego and the state began encouraging more granny flats three years ago with a series of softened regulations and efforts to streamline approvals. Since then, state and city officials have continued loosening the rules.

Geiler said city officials recently submitted to Sacramento a proposal to reduce property line “setbacks,”’ which would allow granny flats to extend all the way to a property line.

He said the City Council will likely get a chance to approve those new rules later this month.

The number of approved junior units, a new concept created just a few years ago, has increased recently from zero to somewhere in the dozens, Geiler said.

That could increase sharply with the new state law allowing a property owner to have both a free-standing granny flat and an inside junior unit. Previously, property owners had to choose one or the other.

The law affecting homeowners’ associations in single-family areas is also likely to have a significant impact, he said. Associations must rescind any codes, covenants and regulations that “unreasonably restrict” construction of granny flats.

The sewer and water fee waiver applies to granny flats that are 750 square feet and smaller. Larger units still must pay a fee.

The new state laws that loosen granny flats are Assembly Bill 68, AB 881, AB 587, AB 671, AB 670 and Senate Bill 13.

The city’s granny flat handbook can be found here:

The city’s granny flat webpage, which includes the pre-approved designs, is here:

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