An Architect Reacts to a San Diego NIMBY Presentation

By Sean Canning

NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups have long been on the front lines of fighting new housing developments that could potentially change their neighborhoods. This is especially true for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and Junior Accessory Dwelling Units (JADU), which are increasingly popular in the City of San Diego.

Today, I wanted to share my thoughts on a presentation made by the group "Neighbors for a Better San Diego." 

This group has made waves with their stance against San Diego's Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) regulations. I felt it was important to address some of their points, especially since I've been involved in discussions about ADUs in the San Diego community.

Sean Canning outside an ADU in San Diego


About a year ago, I was invited to give a presentation on ADUs to the El Cerrito community. 

My goal was simple: to share the technical details of the ADU code without pushing a personal agenda. 

I approach this topic as a pro-development architect, but I always prioritize facts. It's been intriguing to see how, despite my neutral presentation, groups like "Neighbors for a Better San Diego" have formed strong opinions on the matter.

Timing of Development Projects

The group's presentation makes a bold claim right from the start: single-family zones have been decimnated since October 2020 by incentivizing developers. 

However, it's crucial to understand that large-scale projects, like the ones they're referencing, take years to develop. It hasn't even been two full years since that date. 

Simply put - It's premature to say that single-family zones have been decimated.

Understanding State vs. City Regulations

One slide caught my attention where the group compares ADU regulations between California as a whole and San Diego specifically. 

They mention that while California allows one ADU, San Diego permits up to three ADUs or even unlimited ADUs within a half mile of transit. 

This is mostly accurate, but there's a catch: In San Diego, you're still bound by a floor area ratio, limiting the development size, especially in single-family zones.

Debunking Height Myths

The group also raises concerns about height regulations. They suggest that while California has a 16-foot height limit, San Diego permits up to 30 feet. 

This isn't entirely accurate. 

In some zones, the height can even go up to 40 feet. Their argument seems to push for a 16-foot height cap. 

However, from an architectural standpoint, building upwards can preserve yard space, creating more efficient construction and density.

Setback Regulations

They also touch upon setbacks, mentioning that while California mandates a four-foot side and rear setback, San Diego had initially allowed zero setbacks. 

This has since been updated; two-story constructions now require a four-foot setback, while one-story buildings can still have zero lot lines.

Fire Safety and Building Codes

One of the group's concerns revolves around fire safety, particularly in very high fire hazard severity zones. 

However, it's crucial to understand the built-in safety measures in the California Building Code. 

Whenever a structure is closer than five feet to the property line, a one-hour fire-rated wall is required. This wall is designed to withstand fire for an hour before potentially collapsing. 

These safety measures are not just arbitrary; they're rooted in the building code to ensure public safety.

ADU rendering designed by Ten Seventy Architecture

The Misleading "Granny Flat vs. Apartment Complex" Argument

The group presents a slide that compares the potential development based on California state guidelines versus San Diego's guidelines. Their portrayal seems to be hinting at the idea that San Diego's regulations might lead to overcrowded or overdeveloped plots. 

They showcase an "apartment complex" scenario where multiple units (including 150 square foot studios) are stacked on a property.

However, it's essential to break down their presentation critically:

  • Terminology: They use the term "granny flat," which is no longer in use. The official term is "accessory dwelling unit" or ADU.
  • Development Scenario: Their portrayal of development in San Diego, with multiple units on a single-family plot, is a stretch. It's not just about piling units; there are other considerations like affordability. For instance, any unit beyond the initial ADU and JADU would need half of those to be affordable.
  • Size of Studios: The group's representation of 150 square-foot studios is a tad misleading. A studio of this size would barely accommodate basic living amenities, and yet they've represented multiple such units.

The Practicality of 150 Square-Foot Studios

The group presents a scenario of 150 square foot studios, which, in my view, doesn't seem practical. 

A unit of this size would barely have room for essential amenities. For context, 150 square feet is smaller than most hotel rooms. 

While the code minimum does permit this size, from a developer's standpoint, investing in such minuscule units might not be a wise decision. 

There's also a question of market demand for such cramped living spaces.

Flaws in the Presented Development Diagram

The group's development portrayal raises several questions. 

For instance, they depict two parking spaces outside the property line, which isn't permissible. 

Moreover, the wide curb cut they show is also against regulations. Such misleading representations can skew the audience's perception, making it essential to fact-check and understand the practicalities of development.

Investor's Role in the Housing Market

The presentation goes on to discuss the role of investors in buying single-family homes, suggesting that many neighborhoods are at risk. 

They cite that a significant percentage of San Diego's single-family homes were bought by investors in 2021. 

While this data might be accurate, it's essential to understand the broader context and implications of such purchases.

Transit Priority and Density

San Diego uses a transit priority map to determine how many ADUs can be constructed on a single-family lot. Areas within a half-mile of major transit stops fall within this category. 

It's noteworthy that while 60% of San Diego neighborhoods are within these transit priority areas, the ultimate goal should be higher, aiming for around 90% or 95%. 

Access to mass transit is crucial when considering increased density due to ADUs.

ADUs and Single Family Zoning

The group correctly points out that current San Diego code permits unlimited ADUs per lot for properties inside the Transit Priority Area (TPA). 

However, it's essential to understand that while the number of ADUs isn't limited, the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) caps the total development size. 

In single-family zones, this FAR is relatively smaller than in multi-family zones.

The Nuances of Development

While the group paints a scenario of up to five dwellings per lot, it's essential to understand the intricacies of such developments. 

For instance, a triplex that spans three stories would require a soils test, MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing) engineering, and a building permit. Such developments come with significant costs. 

Additionally, while they focus on the maximum number of dwellings, they overlook the potential of converting a garage into another ADU, further maximizing the space.

Parking Concerns Addressed

The group brings up the contentious topic of parking, especially with the possibility of developing ADUs without providing parking spaces. 

However, from a development and rental standpoint, parking is a valuable amenity. 

Most tenants prefer having a dedicated parking spot. In practical scenarios, even properties with multiple units manage with limited parking spaces, as not every tenant might own a vehicle.

Transit Priority Areas: A Closer Look

The group's argument around transit priority areas (TPAs) and their accessibility raises some valid points. 

They highlight instances where, despite a property falling within a TPA, accessing the actual transit stop might not be straightforward. 

While they have cherry-picked a particular example, it's essential to understand that city infrastructure can address such gaps. Solutions like pedestrian bridges can make transit stops more accessible to those living in TPAs.

San Diego vs. Other California Cities

The group presents a comparison between San Diego's ADU incentives and those in other Californian cities. 

They highlight that while other cities might offer free application reviews, pre-approved plans, or fee reductions, San Diego's approach seems to lean more towards upzoning. 

They illustrate this with a graph that suggests San Diego's policies might be impacting neighborhoods more than other cities.

Pre-approved Plans: Are They Ideal?

The group touches upon the idea of pre-approved plans, hinting at their potential benefits. 

However, I believe that while having a few pre-approved options might be helpful, relying solely on them might lead to a city filled with cookie-cutter homes. 

San Diego does offer pre-approved plans, but these shouldn't be the only route for developers. Diversity in design and functionality is essential for a city's architectural landscape.

If you’re interested in pre-approved ADU plans that also feature high-end modern / minimalist design, check out our new pre-designed ADU.

The Role of Developers and Profit

It's no secret that developers are driven by profit, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. 

The presentation points out that developers choose the income level of renters and that moderate-income rents yield more profit. 

While this might be true, it's crucial to remember that if developers don't see a profit, they're less likely to invest in creating new properties. This balance between profit and affordability is a delicate one.

San Diego's Rental Market Dynamics

The claim that San Diego has a surplus of moderate-income rentals is intriguing. It's widely known that San Diego's rental market is tight, and any surplus in rentals would be welcome. 

However, even with a surplus, the San Diego Housing Commission sets rental rates based on median income, reflecting the city's overall living costs.

Pre-Designed ADU offering by Ten Seventy Architecture

ADUs and Demographics

The group presents a somewhat manipulative slide suggesting that ADUs aren't suitable for families, school-age children, or senior citizens. 

Using data from a UC Berkeley study, they indicate that most ADUs house only one to two individuals. 

While this might be true, it's essential to understand that there's no regulation preventing families, children, or seniors from living in ADUs. 

The demographics currently residing in ADUs might be due to ADUs being a relatively new housing option and their typically smaller size compared to traditional homes.

The Potential of ADUs for Diverse Demographics

While the current statistics might show fewer school-aged children or senior citizens living in ADUs, it doesn't imply a lack of potential. The flexible nature of ADUs makes them suitable for various demographics. 

For instance, as property prices continue to soar, ADUs can offer an affordable housing option for families or senior citizens who might not have had the opportunity to purchase a home earlier. 

The portrayal that school children or seniors can't or don't live in ADUs is misleading.

Addressing Environmental Concerns

The group raises concerns about ADUs conflicting with San Diego's climate action goals, from cutting down trees to converting front yards into parking spaces. 

While some of these concerns might be valid, it's essential to note that many of these issues are already addressed in the building code.

For instance, there's a clear mandate to handle stormwater on the property, regardless of the number of structures. Additionally, buildings closer than five feet to the property line or other structures need to be fire-rated, which addresses fire risks. 

The argument about ADUs promoting the cutting down of greenery is contradictory, especially when considering that building vertically can help preserve green spaces.

Developers and Their Role in the Housing Market

The presentation paints developers in a somewhat negative light, suggesting that while developers might benefit from San Diego's ADU regulations, the city and its residents might suffer. 

They touch upon issues like waived developer fees, the potential overbuilding of single-family lots, and homeowners being priced out of the market. 

While developers do have an incentive to build, it's also true that the city needs more housing units to address the ongoing housing crisis. 

Striking a balance between developer interests and the city's housing needs is crucial.

Addressing Concerns on Homeowners and Corporations

The group raises concerns about homeowners potentially being priced out of the market and a significant transfer of land wealth from homeowners to corporations. 

From my perspective, the value of homeowners' properties in San Diego has likely increased due to the potential to build. Homeowners need to recognize this value and negotiate accordingly when approached by corporations or developers.

The Debate on Upzoning

The presentation suggests that upzoning might not necessarily lead to a decrease in prices. While there might be limited data to support this claim, it's essential to consider the broader context. The argument presented is that even if land is rezoned, the price per square foot remains consistent. 

This debate underscores the complexities of housing economics and the factors that influence property values.

The Call for Action and Density

The group concludes their presentation by urging viewers to take action and raise awareness. From my perspective, as a pro-density, pro-development architect, I believe San Diego needs to embrace more density, especially in its core. 

Growing up in a suburb made me recognize the limitations of such environments, where one is heavily dependent on cars. As San Diego grows, its single-family zones near the city center are likely to become denser. This evolution aligns with the growth patterns observed in other major cities.

Concluding Thoughts

While the group, "Neighbors for a Better San Diego," is entitled to its views, it's essential to critically analyze the information presented. 

Some of their points are valid, while others might be misleading or based on misconceptions. 

As a local San Diego architect, I've interacted with many individuals from this group and provided them with information. It's surprising to see how some of this information has been represented in their presentation.

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