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Neighborhoods wary of new apartments or condos on land zoned for them might be getting some relief.

The city of San Diego is rolling out a change that could provide new homes in old neighborhoods without so much controversy.

The city’s “small lot ordinance” was modeled after a similar change in Los Angeles.

The idea, city planners and local developers say, is to remove hurdle in development regulations that made it effectively impossible to build a handful of separate homes on a single small property. It could be one piece of the puzzle to provide housing for an increasing population but less controversial than major density fights have caused.

Some neighborhoods filled with single-family homes, like North Park, had their zoning changed to make way for apartments or condos. But those have never been built.

Instead of building big projects, though, those owners will now be able to divide their property into individual lots to be separate, standalone homes. This was possible before, but much more difficult. An owner would need special permission for each one of those new lots.

“It’s a way to provide density that’s less offensive to people,” said Richard Green, director of University of Southern California’s real estate school.

It’s meant to help the city increase density and add more homes without necessarily feeling like its increasing density and adding more homes.

And while it won’t solve the city’s crisis with housing affordability, it could provide relief

“Housing is expensive in L.A. and San Diego in part because land is expensive,” said Richard Green, director of University of Southern California’s real estate school. “To the extent that you can build more on less land for people to live in, you’ve reduced part of the cost of delivering space to people.”

It could also mean the return of a quintessentially San Diego type of housing: bungalow courts. You’ve seen them in the beach communities and around Balboa Park, mostly 1920s-era groups of six or ten small cottages set around a communal courtyard.

In Los Angeles, it’s produced an influx of pseudo-row homes. They look like row homes but technically have small spaces between them rather than shared walls.

Dan Normandin, a senior planner with the city, said the policy change will lower the cost of housing for the people who buy the homes, since they won’t have to pay home owners association (HOA) fees, as they would if the property had been built into condos.

It could even provide for new housing without causing fights between developers and neighborhoods.

Stephen Haase, a member of the planning commission and veteran developer, said it’ll make it easier to build housing that’s in between a suburban style single-family home, and relatively large mid-rise apartment buildings that rile up neighbors.

“There are some people who don’t like anything, and nothing’s going to satisfy them,” Haase said. “But where there are legitimate concerns about density that doesn’t fit into the bulk and scale of a neighborhood, this is designed to address that and fit in.”

Projects still need to go before local planning groups before they’re approved.

L.A.’s small lot ordinance has been accused of contributing to gentrification. Property owners could suddenly replace homes that were cheap because they were old and run down, with new homes that were more expensive because they were new.

Haase acknowledged this is to some degree unavoidable.

“There is some housing that should be replaced. Homes with code or safety compliance problems that people are forced to live in, do you keep it just because it’s cheap? I say no,” he said.

For instance, he said to think of a 10,000 square foot lot that might be home to a single 6,000 square foot home. Now, it might instead be built into six, 1,200 square foot homes.

Not only are there more homes for people to live in, but they have a ceiling on how expensive they can get because of their size.

Andrew Malick, a developer who specializes in small-scale projects in older neighborhoods like North Park, said this won’t open the floodgates for new development.

He said it willl be attractive to people who own small properties but don’t have the track record or finances required to build it into a new condo building.

“This will open things up for an entrepreneurial homeowner that redevelops his home into four or five new homes and sells it off,” he said.

The new regulation should go into effect in most of the city around the first of June. It’ll hit the coastal communities a few months after that, after it gets Coastal Commission approval.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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