A New York Times story this weekend examined granny flats across the country – apartments that are found on the same lot as an original house that are designed for family members such as grannies or grown children.

The Times piece mentioned that hundreds of towns and cities (many of which see a stark need for affordable housing) are starting to reverse bans on the apartments.

From the pricey purlieus of East Hampton to the environmentally minded Northwest, towns in need of inexpensive housing are turning to garage apartments, mother-in-law units and cottages in the backyard. The aim is to enable people who would otherwise be priced out of the housing market to live close to their jobs and relatives.

In 2003, the San Diego City Council adopted regulations about these granny flats, or “companion units,” which can be detached or attached to the existing home but must have separate “complete living facilities,” like a kitchen and a bathroom. (Here’s a PDF of the municipal code section that outlines the regulations.)

The regulations state that homeowners who wish to have a granny flat (or who wish to make their existing granny flats legal) must meet the following requirements, among others:

  • have twice the minimum lot size for the zone
  • file paperwork with the city regarding who will occupy the unit (family members only)
  • create at least one parking space for the companion unit.

Also, a granny flat may not be built at the same time as the primary residence.

Critics say the regulations are too confusing, designed to discourage homeowners from including the units in their residences. In a city facing an affordable housing shortage, the units could provide a reasonable alternative for grown children starting careers, or older parents on limited pension incomes, they say.

A local Realtor, Catherine Darragh, identified her perspective in recent letters to the editor in the Daily Transcript and the Union-Tribune.

I spoke with her earlier today and she identified the minimum-lot size and the concurrent construction restrictions as elements of greatest concern.

“That’s a lot of red tape,” she said.

She plans to speak to the City Council in its meeting tomorrow afternoon, during which it will discuss the city’s housing element portion of the city’s general plan for 2005-2010.


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