The Real Reason for San Diego's Housing Crisis

By Sean Canning

A Tell-All of an Architect's Struggle to Permit Additional Housing in San Diego, California

I'm an architect in San Diego. I moved out here 10 years ago from New Jersey, probably for the same reasons everyone else lives here, the promise of eternal Spring weather. Let's face it, regardless of a few lingering issues which the City has failed to address, this is a great spot on the Earth to be. Arguably the best city, in the best state of the United States. 

But the cost of living here is very high, especially housing!  We simply do not build enough houses for everyone here to own one. At its simplest, it’s a matter of supply + demand. Right now, we do not have enough housing supply so this increases the cost of property.  

Full disclosure; my wife + I already own a property. It's a modest duplex in Logan Heights which we rent half to help cover the cost of the mortgage. Now on one hand, the lack of supply keeps our property values nice + high. So this works in our favor. 

But on the other hand, I'm an architect + it's the responsibility of my industry to address the housing crises. Designing beautiful custom homes in La Jolla is great, but addressing the needs of greater San Diego is a moral obligation for us professionals who are supposed to be shepherds of the built environment.  

In case you're still shrugging off the housing crisis we find ourselves in, let me put the situation into context.. According to the Voice of San Diego, in 2019 the average home in San Diego County was $655,000, affordable to only 27% of households. By the time I was able to write, edit, + publish this article, in 2021 the average home in San Diego was around $776,000 with property values increasing 8% during the pandemic + predicted to increase the same amount in the next year. 

The experts say we need to be adding 12,000 homes every year which we've failed to do since 2006.  

So it's obvious the solution to the housing crisis is to build more homes. I don't think anyone is arguing that is the answer to this problem.  

So Accessory Dwelling Units will solve the problem, right?  

Well, in theory they could, if they would be affordable to permit. 

Let's say back in 2015 you were planning on building a small 500sf 1-bedroom / 1-bathroom Companion Unit in your backyard in Mira Mesa. 

First, you're project would've been subject to a gauntlet of off-street parking regulations. If you didn't have alley access, there's a good chance you would not have been able to comply w/ these regulations, therefore your project would be denied a permit. 

This is a policy which clearly prioritizes cars over homes.

Okay, suppose you were able to meet the parking requirements. Nice! Now we're able to build something! Construction costs at the time were around $200/sf for entry-level finishes, so that 500sf ADU will probably cost you around $100,000. If you are able to rent that for around $1,500/mo it will pay for itself in around 6yrs. Still interested? If you've got $100k lying around you can probably make this work.  

Of course you'd to have to have the project designed, engineered, + drafted. San Diego has an extensive list of submittal requirements, even for small ADU projects, so the design + engineering would probably cost around $15,000 for a simple single-floor design. Of course we're very energy conscious so you'd have to procure energy compliance documents (sometimes referred to as a Title-24 report), which would add another $300 to your cost. 

After you would have completed your Construction Drawings, it was time to permit! You would have spent around $200 to print 6 sets of those drawings. Then around $3,500 for plan check / inspections. Then $4.08/sf for School Fees, totaling $2,040. Then $3,600 for sewer / water fees. Then $38,256 for impact fees (which vary in each neighborhood). Then, after plan check comments are issued, another $200 to print again. So $47,796 in City fees before you put a shovel in the ground.  

And oh yeah, unless you had a spare 40hrs to spend at the Development Services Building during business hours, you'd have hired a 'permit runner' to shuttle your plans from department to department, another $1,500 or so (apparently passing your printed plans from one department to the next, in the same building, is not included in those $47,796 municipal fees).  

So let's recap. 

A 500sf ADU which will cost around $15,300 (to design) + $100,000 (to build), totaling $115,250 (7yr payback). Now if you wanted to get that permitted through San Diego's DSD you'll add $49,296 (43% of the cost of design + construction). 

Yes, that's right, 30% of your project cost just pays for City fees, many of which your property tax is already paying for. You're now looking at paying $165,546 (10yr payback). 

This was a much more difficult value proposition.  

Enter the State of California, who effectively eliminated impact fees from ADU projects! This was a huge step in the right direction, reducing our example Mira Mesa project to a total cost of $127,290 to complete.  

Now to be quite frank, the parking regulations were still obstructing the development of ADUs around San Diego. 

The City went as far as not allowing tandem parking to qualify for off-street parking, which made properties with only a driveway mostly unable to qualify for an ADU permit. 

Thankfully, San Diego's parking regulations were revised around 2018, making it far easier to meet the requirements with the intent of allowing more ADUs to be constructed.  

Now even after all of the regulation rollback, people were still not building enough housing to meet the demand in San Diego. So the State of California stepped in again, this time allowing for multiple ADUs to be constructed across a variety of residential + commercial zones through AB881, AB68, + SB13 (which you can read here). 

These went into effect on January 1st, 2020. This code essentially overwrote all local ADU municipal codes, leaving San Diego's Planning Department to scramble to update + align their outdated ADU code. So while the State regulations went into effect we eagerly waited for San Diego's municipal code to catch up. 

We waited 9 months for an initial draft, which was issued on August 27th, 2020 (that's not a typo, 3/4 of a year for a draft). The final version was published midway through November in 2020, almost a full year delay - which may give you an understanding of San Diego’s Development Services Department’s urgency toward our housing crisis.  

One of the main issues was San Diego's decision to use the terms 'Companion Units' + 'Junior Units' as types of Habitable Accessory Structures in their past local municipal codes. The State has been referring to these typologies as 'Accessory Dwelling Units' + 'Junior Accessory Dwelling Units'.  

It shouldn’t go unmentioned; since January 2020, the San Diego Development Services Department has made a series of unethical decisions (well, to be fair they can also be chalked up to incompetence, which is very on brand for our DSD). The City launched into a shady real estate deal, purchasing the former Sempra Energy Building downtown @ 101 Ash St. for $127M from developer Doug Manchester through a middle-man Sandy Shapery, evidently without a proper inspection.  

This building costs tax payers $18,000 every day. Every. Single. Day. Although the DSD’s decision makers were aware of an asbestos problem, they relocated their entire staff into the new building, exposing their employees to the dangerous substance.  While the asbestos remediation is estimated to cost around $35M, other needed repairs to the building are estimated to surpass $115M.  When this information become public, the DSD 'temporarily relocated' the entire staff back to the previous building, loosing countless submitted project documents in the rushed transition back.  

That was just the beginning of 2020, as all of that happened in January. Of course the Covid-19 pandemic kicked into full effect around March, with most employees being sent home to work that month. This included the staff of the Development Services Department.  

With everyone working from home + fears of the spreading virus, the decision makers decided it was the perfect time to launch the new #DigitalDSD submittal system, Accella. A highly anticipated software system which would replace the error-riddled PTS (Project Tracking System) they'd been using / blaming for every issue which occurred during the permit process. Finally, the DSD staff would have the ability to read a PDF! 

This was exciting b/c we'd be able to save our Clients the $400 or so cost incurred by printing dozens of sets of 36"x24" drawings. There was just one problem: there wasn't enough time to beta test the new software. What could possibly go wrong?  

Well let me tell you. While the Development Services Department has been proactively advertising the untested #DigitalDSD system as a streamline approach to paper permitting, the reality proves to be the exact opposite. This has left a canyon size gap in expectations of homeowners who are expecting faster permits + the reality of the new process which has more than doubled permitting time + work hours to coax DSD staff to complete their plan checks. 

The reality is the #DigitalDSD system in its current state is a hybrid of the previous decade-old PTS software + the new extremely limited Accela software. Unfortunately, the system is entirely unsustainable, resulting in projects piling up instead of being approved. 

This has created an epic bottleneck in the permitting phase, choking the construction of new ADUs as well as other projects. The DSD failed us during a time when San Diego needed more construction, more jobs, + more housing than ever before.    

Here's our 1st hand experience trying to permit an ADU in San Diego (this gets a little technical).

As you already know, I'm an architect. I own a small architecture firm where we design + permit custom homes or Accessory Dwelling Units for the past 10 years. We specialize in work in the City of San Diego. My wife previously worked for the City of San Diego's permit office doing plan review then later project management. 

Between the two of us, we have every advantage possible to design + permit projects - especially ADUs (which are supposed to be more streamline).  

When the State issued their new ADU regulations in January, I read the thing like I was assigned a homework assignment. 

I read this code so many times I started to feel like the personification of the Charlie meme from Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I literally read it daily for 3 months. I'll be the 1st to admit that the code is written in a very convoluted way, void of indentions or commas. But as an architect, I'm basically a professional code reader + I acted like it was my job to understand this code (which it kinda is). 

It was this section which really intrigued me:  

65852.2(e)

(1) Notwithstanding subdivisions (a) to (d), inclusive, a local agency shall ministerially approve an application for a building permit within a residential or mixed-use zone to create any of the following:

(A) One accessory dwelling unit or junior accessory dwelling unit per lot with a proposed or existing single-family dwelling if all of the following apply:

(i) The accessory dwelling unit or junior accessory dwelling unit is within the proposed space of a single-family dwelling or existing space of a single-family dwelling or accessory structure and may include an expansion of not more than 150 square feet beyond the same physical dimensions as the existing accessory structure. An expansion beyond the physical dimensions of the existing accessory structure shall be limited to accommodating ingress and egress.

(ii) The space has exterior access from the proposed or existing single-family dwelling.

(iii) The side and rear setbacks are sufficient for fire and safety.

(iv) The junior accessory dwelling unit complies with the requirements of Section 65852.22.

(B) One detached, new construction, accessory dwelling unit that does not exceed four-foot side and rear yard setbacks for a lot with a proposed or existing single-family dwelling. The accessory dwelling unit may be combined with a junior accessory dwelling unit described in subparagraph (A). A local agency may impose the following conditions on the accessory dwelling unit:

(i) A total floor area limitation of not more than 800 square feet.

(ii) A height limitation of 16 feet.

Section (B) seems to allow a new detached Accessory Dwelling Unit to be combined w/ a Junior Accessory Dwelling Unit.  

We own a small substandard 2,500sf lot in Logan Heights which has an existing pre-conforming duplex. Our lot has extremely limited space, but the frontmost exterior wall is set back considerably from the 20’ front yard setback, leaving just enough space for a new structure w/ a small footprint. 

ADU Site Plan for Context
The Site Where the New ADU Would Be Constructed for Context

Also important to understand, our water meter can only accommodate 1 more bathroom + kitchen before it would have to be upgraded (around a $10k cost + an additional Right Of Way permit).  

However, I'm a student of the code. 

I know that a Junior Accessory Dwelling Unit is allowed to share a bathroom w/ the unit it's attached to. Until this point, I was unsure why anyone would want their JADU to share a bathroom. Then it clicked.

The design could be 2 legally permitted studio units which share a bathroom. Sounds like a dormitory? Exactly! This is exactly what San Diego is missing: off-campus student housing, close to downtown.  

But I still had more research to do to confirm I was reading the State code correctly.  

The next thing I checked was Chapter 13, Article 1, Division 4: Residential Base Zones. This is the section of San Diego's Municipal Code which tells you what you can build in which zone. 

My property is zoned RM-2-5, the Residential - Multiple Unit Zone. Table 131-04B provides a matrix of what you can permit, so I scrolled down to Junior Units + there it was, I can permit a Junior Unit in my zone! Now the municipal code is in a constant state of flux, so it's good practice to always check the date when this version was published. This code section was published in February 2020!  

Proposed ADU Site Plan
Proposed ADU Site Plan

Final Approved ADU Site Plan
Approved ADU Site Plan


So let's recap. The written State regulations support our design. San Diego's municipal code was published a month later + which also supports our design. We're good to go!  

But I didn't stop there. 

Since the design we were proposing would be the 1st of its kind, I discussed the project w/ my colleagues. An architect friend was just issued a permit for a similar project type; an ADU + a JADU on a lot w/ an existing Single-Family Dwelling Unit in an RM zone. Now we had a case study which supported our design.  

So after months of code interpretation, design, then engineering, we were ready to make our submittal to get our permit. 

Due to the before mentioned Covid-19 situation, our submittal would coincide with the advent of the new #DigitalDSD submittal process. 

On the inaugural day of #DigitalDSD, May 5th, 2020, we uploaded all of our project documents to the City's server. The following day we received a 'no reply' email stating "The City wide network experienced issued on May 4th and 5th. Documents that were uploaded on those dates need to be uploaded again. Please re-upload documents so completeness review for your project can start."  

My wife + I looked at each other, both simultaneously knowing (despite the grammar mistakes) what this meant for the permitting of this project + future projects throughout San Diego. 

It was a sign of things to come. An omen from the permit gods. Nothing about #DigitalDSD was going to be more streamline, less expensive, or faster. Permitting in San Diego would never be the same again.  

Can I get a 2nd opinion?  

After the initial submittal error message on May 5th, we resubmitted the entire project the following day on May 6th. Now our project is in the Promise Zone, a zone designated by the federal government as underprivileged + therefor receiving special benefits. 

One of those benefits, according to DSD Information Bulletin 538 is an "Expedite Permitting" process. Additionally, this project is considered an infill project because the site is already developed which also qualifies it for Expedite Permitting.  

For context, this is how the permits process works:  

When you make a submittal for a permit your project gets routed to about a half dozen departments, depending on the scope of the proposed design. Each department will issue a series of comments + the architect is tasked to revise their drawings accordingly + provide written responses for each comment. 

This is referred to as the plan check process. Often times comments issued by the DSD require discussion, as the municipal code is not exactly cut + dry.  As architects we deal w/ complicated issues which require communication to understand. This is something that is often not available to us when dealing with most DSD employees who are plan checking our projects. 

In fact, management has been removing their staffs email addresses from the plan check documents + the DSD directory. This has effectively broken down communication to our online submittals / written responses + staff plan check comments, which can take over a month to receive. 

What used to be able to be resolved in a conversation at the plan check counter now can take over a month for a response (which may not even address the issue correctly). 

Essentially the permit applicant will have to repeat this plan check comment + architect response cycle until the DSD staff is satisfied. 

Back to our project. Our initial plan check was due on May 21st.  For our Zoning review, the project was assigned to the Supervising Plan Review Specialist (basically the supervisor of the Zoning Department). 

We've dealt w/ him before, many times over the last decade.  We received his plan check comments on May 31st, 10 days after they were due.  He issued 9 comments, the 1st two are just general procedural instructions so there are 7 actionable comments which are listed below.  

3.  The proposed Jr. unit is not allowed in the multi Family zones as shown on sheet A1.0.

This is completely incorrect. Even disregarding the State's ADU regulations, the February 2020 version of San Diego's Municipal Code clearly allows for Junior Units in all RM Zones. Even at the time this article was published, Table 131-04B of the Municipal Code clearly allowed this.  

4.  Provide a fully dimension site plan including all existing and proposed structures and call out addresses on all existing and new structures on sheet A1.0. 

Okay, we didn't dimension the existing duplex since....well..  it's existing.  

5.  The proposed companion unit is required to have its own dedicated entry. 

It does. I'm not sure how someone who reviewed the drawings could miss a 6’ wide french door.  

6.  Label the rear yard setback on the proposed site plan on sheet A1.0. 

Okay, we figured since we were proposing work on the front side of the property, adding a dimension leader to the dashed line which represents the rear yard setback wouldn't be an important consideration.  

7.  The proposed parking is not allowed to encroach into the require front yard setback as shown on sheet A1.0.

This is not correct. Parking is allowed to encroach into the front yard setback per SDMC 141.0302(a)(7)(C)Off-street parking space(s) may be located in any configuration, may be within the setback areas, and may include covered or uncovered parking tandem spaces, or mechanical lifts.  

This code section + text was also indicated on our Site Plan.  

8.  The proposed mini split system and proposed electric car charger will need to comply with chapter 13 section 131.0461(a)(5) as shown on the proposed site plan sheet A1.0. 

This refers to the Architectural Projection section of the code which explains what can encroach into the setback + what cannot.  I'll give him partial credit for this comment. The mini split condenser can be in the side yard setback as proposed if it meets certain dB levels. The electric car charger cannot be in the setback, although we can verify that the front yard setback extends into the area we proposed the car charger. Fair.  

9.  Per the 1st and 2nd floor dimension on sheet A2.1, the total proposed area of the new building is 283sf. Revise building area on sheet A1.0. 

We proposed a 2-floor, 522sf structure. I think he missed the entire 2nd floor when he reviewed our project or is just really bad at math (more on his math skills later). 

So just to be clear, of the 9 comments issued from the Zoning Department, 7 were actionable. Of those 7, 4 were incorrect, resulting in an accuracy of 3/7 or 43%. Note: this review was performed by the department supervisor. The SUPERVISOR..  I can handle all of the comments easily, however comment #3 is a total deal breaker for our proposed Junior Unit. 

Realizing this situation requires some communication before we continue, we emailed this supervisor directly to start a discussion.  

His response is as follows; "Per the city discussion with the state, Jr. Units are only allowed in a single family zone not a multi-family zone . The premise in question is within a RM zone which is consider an multi-family zone so a Jr. Unit is not allowed."  

We follow up w/ a screenshot of the municipal code showing Junior Units are allowed in RM zones.

His response; "The code update is coming soon to reflect the new changes. As stated in the previous email, per state law, Jr. Units are not allow in the multi-family zone."

Now we're left to debate complicated code information w/ a person who had difficulty w/ addition. The 1st thing readers who have made it this far need to understand, is we're able to apply the code which was in-place at the time we made our project submittal. Any code update after our submittal is not our concern, as we don't have a crystal ball in the office to see what the DSD is thinking for future code updates. 2nd, there is no such thing as "single-family zoning" + "multi-family zoning." 

At least not in San Diego. In this City, we use RS (Residential - Single Unit) + RM (Residential - Multiple Unit) Zones. It seems like a minor terminology difference, but "Single-Family" + "Multi-Family" are defined by the California Building Code as Occupancies w/ the later triggering a more complicated R-2 Occupancy Class. I find it very strange that the Zoning Supervisor uses these terms interchangeably.  

Realizing we weren't going to get anywhere, we reached out to the Deputy Director, the superior of the supervisor of the Supervising Plan Review Specialist on May 22nd. Eventually we requested a Zoom meeting to go over a few ADU typologies. This meeting was scheduled for June 2nd. In the meantime he supposedly reached out to the State for clarification on our project.  

The Zoom meeting occurred as scheduled. We reviewed a dozen various project types, including our ADU with attached JADU in an RM zone. His conclusion was this was an acceptable ADU typology based on the new State regulations. We followed up with an email to solidify the conversation. We were still waiting on the State's clarification but the advice from the Deputy Director was to wait until San Diego issued a draft of their new municipal code which would align the State's regulations, therefor allowing our project.  

By June 23rd we had made our plan revisions for all the other department plan check comments + made our resubmittal. 

In our response to Zoning's suggestion that we could not build an Junior Unit in an RM Zone we provided all the evidence we had collected including citing sections from San Diego's Municipal Code as well as other supportive info issued by the DSD + citing our case study project.  

This would make them either sign off on the project (eliminating their previous plan check comment) or issue a new comment addressing in writing the discrepancy between our code evidence + their decision on issuing our permit.  

On July 6th we reached out to the Deputy Director for the municipal code update (which we were advised us to wait for). He informed us there would be a Planning Commission meeting on August 20th where a draft code would be available.  At this point the only question was the validity of a Junior Unit in an RM Zone. 

By the way, they agreed that we could build a 2nd Accessory Dwelling Unit on our lot, it was the lesser Junior Unit that created the apprehension (the only difference is an independent bathroom vs. the shared bathroom respectfully).  

Coincidently, a colleague of ours had recently had a permit issued for this exact situation. So we used that project as a case study + sent it over to the Deputy Director, basically saying if they can do it we should be able to do it too. After all, that project went through the same Zoning Department as our project.  

He responded, "I reviewed the plans, they did a scope change to use State Law which allows a JU and a CU on a property with a Single Dwelling Unit.  Is your property a Single Family with JU/CU proposed? "

Finally we had information to move our project forward. After all, this confirms we can build the JADU in our RM Zone as long as their is a Single-Family Dwelling Unit. We were correct + our 2nd opinion was validated!  

Our property has an existing duplex, which by definition is two attached Single-Family Dwelling Units. This is supported by the California Building Code's definition of Multi-Family being 3 or more residential units, while Single-Family is defined as up to 2 residential units. 

Additionally, we have records for 2 permits which were pulled for our project; the 1st from 1985 + the 2nd from 2016 where the structure was described as 2 Single-Family Dwelling Units. These permits were approved by the Zoning Department.  Seems like we should be able to move forward w/ our project as proposed at this point. 

The Deputy Director agreed, however since we were proposing to build our new ADU 4 inches from the property line we'd have to wait until the City's draft code was available, as the State regulations still require a 4 foot setback. I found this interesting because the current municipal code doesn't required ADUs to have setbacks + the draft would have the same conditions, but we decided to wait as he recommended.  

Our Zoning recheck comments were received late again, this time a week delinquent on July 8th (although Zoning Supervising Plan Review Specialist incorrectly listed them complete in their software a day earlier). 

We opened the email with pure excitement. It was now 2 months since we made our initial submittal + we'd planned on starting construction in August. There shouldn't be many more comments at this point + event if their was a few lingering ones, we'd have written clarification which we can act on. We opened the PDF file for the Zoning plan check + there it was.. 9 of the same comments.. none signed off.. no more info added.. literally the same exact document with the date changed.  

We reached out immediately, emailing the Supervising Plan Review Specialist for clarification. In fact, we sent 2 emails requesting clarification. 

He followed up with a phone call explaining he should've signed off on some comments but made a mistake + did not. Politely I suggested he go back into his system + complete his plan check so we could get the paperwork we needed to progress the permit. He agreed that he would complete his work that afternoon. Note: plan check is a service we had already paid for.  

That afternoon we did not receive a completed plan check from him.   followed up w/ a reminder email on July 9th. No plan check. I sent another email on July 13th, then July 15th, then July 20th, then the 24th, then the 30th. Finally he responded, "resubmit for recheck." He was asking us to make an entirely new submittal for him to provide the recheck. 

Not only was this different than what we had agreed on, the DSDs software would register his review completed on July 7th + we would not be able to get sign-offs from the other departments who were dependent on the Zoning sign-off. After discussing with my wife, who's an expert in San Diego permits, we decided not to resubmit. I had a card up my sleeve.  

Eventually I got tired of trying to get DSD staff to do the work we had already paid for. I stopped emailing to request a recheck + just made it clear that the provided recheck was incomplete. You see, I knew the State code very well + I remembered an interesting section which sets a maximum review time for plan checks for these ADU projects. Section 65852.2(b) states;  If the local agency has not acted upon the completed application within 60 days, the application shall be deemed approved.  

While I did not want to delay our project, I decided to allow the 60 day period to elapse.  

On August 20th we woke up very excited to hear what our City had in mind for the future of ADU housing.. But the Deputy Director had given us the wrong date. That Planning Commission meeting didn't happen until the 27th.

Planning Commission Meeting

We watched the Planning Commission meeting live in our office. We watched a Development Project Manger make a presentation of the draft code. It was all positive. The proposed Municipal Code updates were unanimously supported, including a continuation of the zero setback regulations for ADU structures. So it seemed like we were ready to move forward w/ our permit.  

The same day we emailed the Deputy Director, eager to make progress on our permit. We exchanged some emails but ultimately he had to check with the State again + would call us next week.  This phone call didn't happen until September 2nd where he stated "there is a clear path to a permit." He also brought The Development Project Manager who made the presentation to the Planning Commission into the conversation.  

Now by now our patience was running out. 

Not only was our project designed to the written letter of the code, in support of the greater intent of the code (to provide additional housing), + would be a net win for San Diego, but I still hadn't seen any of the State's direction. 

I'm not even sure why I was waiting on the State as the terms in question are defined in the California Building Code. By the time a code is published you can bet it's gone through multiple revisions, redlined by multiple lawyers. The way it's written is VERY intentional.  here was nothing left to wait for. We were ready to go.  

We were now in September. 3/4 of a year had already passed before San Diego had a draft version of their new ADU code produced. How could it take this long to make a document which would help San Diego's housing crisis?  

To make things even more complicated the Development Project Manager who had just become privy of our project was now bringing up issues we'd already agreed were resolved. Her main concern was that our duplex was not a Single-Family or that it wasn't on a Singe-Family Zoned lot. She used the terms pretty liberally. The problem is she was using both incorrectly. Ultimately she said she needed to get the State's opinion.. again..  

She also claimed that our ADU project would not be subject to the $3,600 sewer/water fees.  Unfortunately she was incorrect about this + we would end up paying the full fee. 

Then on September 10th I received an email from the Deputy Director stating the permit issued for the case study project we were referencing was issued in error + a hold would be put on their final inspection. This was a project we'd cited for months. That project should be dependent on the same State's opinion my project was waiting for, but instead a hold was placed without further explanation. 

This felt like a slap in the face. Basically everything put in writing was no longer valid. Also, my colleague was left in permit limbo with a project mid-construction.  

On September 14th, my patience expired + I emailed both staff members we were dealing w/ requesting immediate approval citing 65852.2(b).  

That email was ignored. 

In fact, when we finally were able to get in touch with City staff they said that the were not respecting the State Regulations for 60 day approvals of ADU permits. Meanwhile they had been advertising on their social media channels compliance with this exact code section. 

At the point our plan to design + build the smallest duplex in San Diego, off-campus college housing, was dead in the sand.  

The Hail Mary

If we couldn’t get the project approved as an Accessory Dwelling Unit with an attached Junior Accessory Dwelling Unit (2 studio rentals) my backup plan was to have it permitted as a single Accessory Dwelling Unit (1 bedroom rental). 

I wouldn’t have invested so much time + money if I didn’t have a plan B.  

But just as we were about to concede defeat, something unexpected happened. Sometime between the time when the draft municipal code was being reviewed, prior to it being published, an unexpected update appeared in the published code!  

The previous code stated: Only one Companion Unit or Junior Unit is permitted on a Premises. Guest quarters and non-habitable structures shall be permitted in addition to the Companion Unit or Junior Unit.  

The updated code read: Only one Companion Unit or Movable Tiny House, and one Junior Unit are permitted on a Premises. Guest quarters and non-habitable structures shall be permitted in addition to the Companion Unit or Movable Tiny House, and Junior Unit.

This update code section would allow me to permit the project as the duplex it was supposed to be. I no longer had to rely on the complicated State regulations + could go straight through the San Diego Municipal Code. It was now explicit that both the ADU + JADU were permit-able.  

Excited by this realization, I reached out to the cast of DSD characters I’d been dealing with previously. This time I included the Assistant Director, a very reasonable man who I had a series of recent conversations where I explained issues with the #DigitalDSD process from the architect's perspective.

This was a last minute hail Mary shot. Ultimately it was turned down because, by definition, the Junior Unit could only share a bathroom with a Dwelling Unit (not an Accessory Dwelling Unit). 

The only difference is the name. So if you’re wondering if our Development Services Department policy is to encourage more housing, I think your answer can be found in their willingness to deny an additional housing unit based on terminology minutia.  

Wrapping it Up

At this point we pivoted to our backup plan, a 1-bedroom / 1-bathroom Accessory Dwelling Unit. We still had to satisfy 4 comments by the Zoning Department Supervising Plan Review Specialist (2 original + 2 new). I’ll list them below so you can get the full context of what we deal with at the plan check level. 

First Floor Plan


Second Floor Plan

8.  The proposed mini split system and proposed electric car charger will need to comply with chapter 13 section 121.0461(a)(5) as shown on the proposed site plan sheet A1.0.  

The electric car charger had been removed from the drawings in the last submittal so I think this comment mostly remains for the mini split. The code section he’s referencing requires the mini split condenser unit (the part that is on the outside of the house) to be 45 decibels or less. We had indicated the condenser to be within an enclosure which would reduce the decibel level from 49 to 45, making it comply with the code section he cited.  

9.  Per the 1st and 2nd floor dimension on sheet A2.1, the total proposed area of the new building is 283. Revise building area on sheet A1.0.

This comment was never removed from his initial plan check.  

10.  The proposed building per the proposed floor plan sheet A2.1, shows the dimensions to be 13.6x20.10 for both floors = 532.4.  

Well, not only is this newly issued comment in direct contraction to his previous comment (#9), but let’s take a look at his math. The footprint of our building was indicated on the Site Plan as 13’-6” x 20’-10”.  He has converted this to 13.6’ x 20.10’.. So obviously someone skipped 4th grade math class. Just so everyone is on the same page here, this is the Supervising Plan Review Specialist who’s struggling with elementary math. There are also certain parts of the project which are exempt from the floor area (but how can I explain that to someone who cannot convert fractions to decimals)?  

11.  Per City Mechanical Engineer, provide report or document that show how the proposed mechanical equipment, sound attenuation features are incorporated and demonstrated to comply with applicable sound level limits in accordance with Section 59.5.0401.

This is essentially the the same as comment #8. As the Architect of the project, I am responsible for every component of the project. The specification I list on my drawings are how the project will be built.  In certain cases we use what’s called a performance specification. This is a description of how something should work, which the Contractor is then responsible to achieve. In this case we indicated “an enclosure, constructed around the air conditioner condenser unit, to reduce the decibels from 49 to 45.” This specification requires the Contractor to meet the code minimum.  For some reason this was not acceptable to the Zoning Department’s Supervising Plan Review Specialist.  

Although we thought these comments should’ve been signed off months ago during our 1st round of plan check comments. However since the Supervising Plan Review Specialist did not sign off (or provide any new comments) after the 2nd plan review, our entire plan check phase of permitting was drawn out into this 3rd review.  

When we resubmitted our project, addressing the remaining issues, we discovered this person was on vacation for the next few weeks. We used this to our advantage + had his backup sign off on the remaining items.  

Now that the plan check comments were all satisfied we were able to move onto the pre-issuance then issuance steps of the permit process. Each step coming with their own paperwork challenges (but dealing mostly with employees who can do basic math).  

The Conclusion, Moving Forward

Our permit was finally issued on January 7th, 2021. 8 months after our initial submittal. In spite of the 60 day requirement for ADU permits, our project was delayed by incompetent supervisors who think that “because I said so” supersedes cited code sections. 

Our proposed duplex ADU design was rejected, ultimately reducing the number of rental units we could build, despite citing codes which allowed the design. While we were able to adjust to a 1 unit design, San Diego is left 1 housing unit less than if our proposed design was approved. This is a drop in the bucket when compared to the 12,000 housing units needed every year, but the process we went through is an example of why San Diego consistently does not meet its housing goals + the result is the housing crisis we all experience everyday.  

We’re currently building our Accessory Dwelling Unit project. You can follow along as we publish a series of blogs through the construction process.  

ADU Construction Progress
Recent Construction Progress of our New Harrison ADU

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