How Millennials Will Buy Homes in San Diego

By Sean Canning

UPDATE: This article was written in 2017. For updated info on Accessory Dwelling Units in San Diego click here.

California is experiencing a housing crisis + the solution is going to be a game-changer for millennials looking to become property owners in San Diego. Let's look @ how Senate Bill 1069 will affect the future development of San Diego -from an architectural perspective of course.

If you're already aware of what SB 1069 is, skip ahead..

Senate Bill No. 1069 can be seen here. It's a tough read, but here's the summary; 'allowing accessory dwelling units in single-family or multifamily residential zones provides additional rental housing stock, and these units are an essential component of housing supply in California.'

This bill is intended to add more housing throughout California -especially in urban areas. It does this by loosening the current Companion Unit restrictions (also called granny flats, guest homes, casitas, or more generally referred to as Accessory Dwelling Units). Most areas of San Diego can expect to see more of these Accessory Dwelling Units built in the future. For the purposes of this information I'll be focusing on the City of San Diego's Municipal Code updates. Other municipalities throughout San Diego County + California will vary slightly in their implementation.

At the time I'm writing this, the bill has been approved + drafts of both the City of San Diego's Municipal Code + the County of San Diego's Zoning Code have been released. The final, final decision is supposed to be made on September 12, 2017. So until then, everything is speculative. I'll update this article accordingly.

UPDATE: San Diego's Planning Commission approved the proposed changes on September 12th, 2017. We're just waiting on the Municipal Code to be updated to reflect the changes.

The Significant New Code Changes That You Should be Aware of

These changes apply to both Single-Family / Multi-Family zones (w/ a maximum of 2 units).. so basically all residential homes. The most significant changes involve loosening the off-street parking requirements + a HUGE reduction in permitting fees. + before you even ask, accessory dwelling units can be attached or detached.

You can check the zone of your lot here to make sure it's either a Single-Family / Multi-Family zone. Properties in the Coastal Zone (west of Rt. 5) may be subject to additional regulations.

If you ever wondered how millennials will afford property in San Diego, this is how!

The Benefits

These changes to the companion unit regulations are exactly how you'd want a city like San Diego to plan for smart growth; concentrate density around public transportation so you can get the people to the urban centers where the jobs are. All while fostering walkable, live/work neighborhoods where families can grow into their homes.

Accessory dwelling units are very flexible spaces, a major benefit to the modern-day homeowner. For example, a young homeowner can live in the companion unit while renting out the primary dwelling, reducing a mortgage payment w/ the rental income. As the owner develops their career + begins to make more money they can choose to swap into the larger unit. If you ever wondered how millenials will afford property in San Diego, where the average home costs over half a million, this is how they can do it! The construction of these units can even be rolled into the home loan by using a 203K loan, but a mortgage broker would be the guy to discuss that w/.

ADUs can also compliment the needs of a family, becoming a master bedroom suite for a growing family, an in-law suite for aging parents, or a dorm room for a cost-conscious college student. All while reducing inter-family travel + vehicle expense.

Walkable neighborhoods are generally preferred to the suburbs of the past. Let's face it, millenials are not buying vehicles like previous generations + ride share apps have changed the landscape of our cities. Communities w/ a mixture of unit sizes, types, owners, + renters are inline w/ San Diego's new urbanism-inspired 'City of Neighborhoods' planning theme.

these units allow flexibility for a growing, multi-generational families
low-cost development w/ potential for rental income
addresses California + San Diego's housing crisis by creating more supply, stabilizing rent prices
reduces urban sprawl + associated pollution / other issues
encourages walkable communities + shorter work commutes

The main reasons there isn't a companion unit in your back yard right now no longer exist!

Parking Restrictions

Off-street parking is the primary regulatory restriction of new companion units. Previously, companion units required the same amount of off-street parking as a primary dwelling unit, generally @ least 1-parking space. (you can see the off-street parking requirements in the Table below).

One extra parking space seems easy right? Not as easy as you'd expect when you consider the code prevented these parking spaces from being located within a setback area (frontage) + restricted tandem parking, with independent access required for the parking spaces both of both units. These regulations made parking challenging if not impossible to accommodate, particularly for properties w/ driveways + w/o alley access. This effectively disqualified those properties from permitting a companion unit. But the new parking regulations will loosen those parking restrictions significantly. Basically, the main reasons there isn't a companion unit in your back yard right now no longer exist!

Key Changes

tandem parking is new acceptable on any lot where there is an ADU

* Provided the CU is (1) 500sf or less, (2) located within the transit area or a transit priority area, (3) within a designated historic resources area, (4) within an existing single dwelling unit or an existing permitted habitable dwelling unit, (5) within a residential permit parking district, (6) one block from a vehicle sharing station, or (7( one block from a bike sharing station.

when parking is required for CUs, it's reduced to 0.5 per bedroom w/ a minimum of 1 off-street space
want a car lift.. go for it!
I'm still waiting to see if parking will be allowed in the setback areas. Fees are a major financial barrier to permitting a companion unit, but the State is now requiring those fees are mostly eliminated.

Reduction of Fees

Previously, Accessory Dwelling Units were subject to the same Impact Fees as the Primary Dwelling Units. I try not to write click-bait links, but what the heck:

You Won't Believe How Much the Impact Fees are in These Neighborhoods in San Diego - Wait Until You See the Price of Del Mar Mesa's Fees!

That is the City of San Diego 2018 Impact Fee Schedule (+ yes you read those fees correctly). Those are the fees you would pay if you wanted to build one of those cool grannie flats you see in architectural magazines.. in addition to the cost of the building permit. You probably weren't even aware of these fees.. probably b/c they pay for the same things your property taxes do. Obviously these fees are a major financial barrier to permitting a companion unit, but the State is now requiring those fees are mostly eliminated.

Key Changes

it's rumored that impact fees will be reduced to a flat $2,000 (although I haven't confirmed as of yet)
water / sewer fees are eliminated when under max. capacity (this will save thousands of $)

A New Junior Unit?

This is actually pretty cool. There is a new type of accessory dwelling unit available + it's called a Junior Unit. These units need an independent entrance + an efficiency kitchen, but can share a bathroom + have an internal connection w/ a primary dwelling unit.

They are limited to 500sf + require absolutely no additional parking. Companion Units will no longer require owner-occupancy, but Junior Units will require an owner live on the property.

These units are great as flexible spaces too. They will be able to be used as an art studio, home office, man cave, or rental unit.

Key Changes

a new type of Junior Unit is available up to 500sf
Junior Units require 0 off-street parking spaces
they can be created from within existing homes

Maximum Square Footage + Bedroom Increase

Just a few months ago, San Diego limited companion units to 600sf (basically a 1-bedroom, 1-bathroom unit). The new changes would allow companion units to increase in size relative to the associated primary dwelling. Larger companion units allow for more bedrooms.


maximum size of a companion unit to 50% of the size of the primary dwelling unit, w/ a maximum size of 1,200sf
this allows for additional bedrooms in companion units

Existing Garage Conversions

Garages can encroach into some setbacks, but dwelling units cannot. This is what prevents most existing garages from being able to be legally converted to accessory dwelling unit. The changes to the code will allow for existing garage conversions within the setbacks as long as the fire code is met.

As an added bonus, the displaced parking space(s) from the old garage no long have to be relocated in a newly constructed garage (as the previous code required). Those parking spaces do have to be replaced somewhere on the property though.

Relaxed Setbacks + Height Restrictions

This is one of the more surprising changes. It appears that single-story companion units or junior units may encroach into the setbacks. Any wall / window within 5' of the property line will still need to be fire-rated, but @ least you won't end up w/ an unusable sliver of side yard.


1-story companion units may encroach into sideyard setbacks for up to 30 linear feet (setbacks apply for 2-story units)
companion units can now be as tall as the base zone allows, rather than the previously restricted height limit

Other Notable Changes

fire sprinklers are only required in companion units when required in primary dwelling unit
owners no longer need to occupy either primary dwelling unit or companion unit
pre-approved companion unit designs are rumored to be provided to reduce costs associated w/ design + permitting plan check

Definitely Not Changing

the bill does not magically grant permits to un-permitted structures
does not increase the max. square footage allowed in a zone (FAR)
does not allow for more than 1 ADU on a property
does not allow the ADU to be sold separately from the primary dwelling unit
dose not change fire code requirements (other than that fire sprinkler thing I mentioned earlier)
does not reduce the required separation distances for detached structures

The Negatives

These new companion units are encouraged in areas near mass transit options, which is how city planning + public transportation is supposed to work. But it will certainly make parking less available in those areas. In addition, zero off-street parking spaces are required for any junior unit regardless of location. Certainly some of the occupants of these new junior units will have cars that will have to be parked on the street. Certain NIMBY neighborhoods like Kensington will undoubtedly hate this change. But change is a steamroller, it's inevitable + it's coming quickly down the road.

adding more dwelling units w/o adding more parking spaces
pre-approved architecture historically results in bland neighborhoods + lack of a sense of place
reduces developer's incentive to maintain existing homes

The world's best cities are not planned as a snapshot of the present but as a prediction of the future. Planning for that future requires the foresight to address issues w/ progressive ideas. I'll be sure to keep all of you updated as we move towards a new San Diego architecture!

As usual, if you have any questions about this information, or would like to set up a consultation for architectural design of a Companion Unit or new Junior Unit please feel free to contact me.

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