San Diego Homeowners Prepare To Build Granny Flats After Council Cuts Fees
Kit Gateley has big plans for the backyard at her North Park home. She's already placed white markers on her yard showing where she plans to build.
"So the front door is positioned here, we're going to have a walkway down there, with a separate entrance," she said, walking through the imagined home. "The kitchen will be on your right. There'll be a stove, refrigerator, sink and a little counter along here."
Gateley is planning to construct a granny flat — officially called a companion unit — a small apartment built in the backyard of an existing home.
In May, the San Diego City Council took a step aimed to encourage the construction of more granny flats as one way to address San Diego's affordable housing issues. The council voted to slash several of the fees for building granny flats. The savings range from $8,000 to more than $30,000 depending on several factors, including what part of the city the flat will be built and whether it's new construction or existing construction.
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In a statement, Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the idea was to increase the city's housing supply.
"This will be another tool we’ll use to tackle our housing needs,” he said.
Average rents in the city have increased by 20 percent in the past three years and there are fewer vacancies now than ever, according to a recent report from MarketPointe Realty Advisors.
The hope is that the reduced fees will encourage homeowners like Gateley to build extra homes for people to rent. She got the idea to build a granny flat when she heard from a friend who needs a place to live and can't afford the high rents in San Diego.
"I started thinking of an old dream of mine, which had been to raise the roof," she said. "We have a little attic upstairs and I really wanted to push up that, make a whole full second floor and put an apartment up there. I thought that would be way cool."
Way cool until she heard the price tag: more than $300,000.
"So that kind of got abandoned," she said. "But then I just started thinking, what if we, could we, any chance of building something in the backyard?"
Gateley found out building a granny flat would have half the price tag. She's owned her home for more than 30 years, so she could refinance it and then charge rent to cover the construction costs.
So she had an architect draw up plans and was ready to get permits from the city.
"They are ready to grant it, however, if we wait two weeks more we can save around $9,000," she said, because of the City Council's decision to reduce fees. "So that's a no-brainer."
San Diego is behind the curve in building granny flats, said Caitlin Bigelow, who started a company called Maxable Space that connects homeowners from across the state with information about building companion units.
"People were balking at these big price tags saying, 'I can't afford to build that, this is crazy,'" she said.
Now with the fees waived, "we're seeing a big uptick in owners who had been interested in this kind of project but it was cost prohibitive up until this point," she said.
But Bigelow doesn't expect every homeowner in San Diego will now build a new apartment in the backyard.
"This is never going to be something that appeals to the masses," she said. "Americans like their privacy and like their yard. But for some savvy homeowners who are looking for a way to invest in their properties, this is a really smart sensible thing to do."
Even with the reduced fees, not everyone can afford the construction.
Environmental activist Nicole Capretz wanted to build a small apartment at her Kensington home. But the six-figure price tag was just too high, and she wasn't ready to refinance and take out a loan.
"I was seriously thinking about building a casita because I have this big backyard and obviously care about the affordable housing crisis," she said. "But in the short term, it felt overwhelming. So I postponed those plans. Perhaps one day I'll be in a position where I feel more comfortable, but at this point, the costs are still too high. Which is unfortunate, because I think a lot of people are similarly situated to me."
Back in North Park, homeowner Kit Gateley is ready to get construction going on her granny flat. The only thing she's slightly sad about is the loss of that space in her backyard.
"I play in a band, so we would have little house concerts out there, and we actually got married out there," she said.
But she's still planning on saving a portion of her yard.