By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) — often referred to as granny-flats — are not new. But a new statewide mandate intended to streamline their construction as a means to add needed housing has forced city governments to develop new ADU ordinances that comply with the state rules.
On March 12, La Mesa City Council voted in the city’s new ADU and JADU (junior accessory dwelling unit) rules at a meeting that pitted residents opposed to the ordinance — which they argued lacked restrictions — against pro-ADU residents, home builders, housing advocates and real estate professionals.
Before the vote, many residents spoke against the ordinance as it is written and requested several changes be made. Resident Stephanie Murphy said she was sad to see the state forcing a policy that “changes the fundamental character of a place as an unproven remedy for the housing crisis.” Murphy added she was also concerned that the ADU ordinances did not have adequate resident involvement in the decision-making process, pointing out that discussion on the ordinances were held at a Planning Commission meeting three business days before Christmas.
Murphy, like many of the residents opposed to the ordinances, said the city should adopt some additional restrictions such as parking requirements and to add more space to setbacks for new ADUs. The ordinances put the setbacks for new ADU buildings at five feet from the curb. Other restrictions residents requested included an owner occupancy requirement to prevent “mini-apartment complexes in the city,” as well as a minimum rental term of 30 days to prevent proliferation of short-term rentals.
Wellesley Street resident Marcia Graef was concerned about how the no parking requirements for ADUs would affect residents in her neighborhood. Wellesley Street has a parking district and parking is already severely impacted, Graef said. Councilmember Kristine Alessio said that the state law prevented cities from carving out exemptions for neighborhoods, even those with parking districts.
Other concerns raised by residents included impacts on safety from overcrowding the streets with parked cars, ADUs turned into “mini-dorms” in the west side of the city to service an expanded SDSU student population, and unsightly structures designed to hold more people and not match the aesthetics of the neighborhood.
Overall, the speakers opposed to the ordinances said they supported ADUs but wanted the city to hold off on approving the new rules in order to allow for more rigorous debate to their details.
“I am not against ADUs. I am against forcing them into spots that are too small and too tight,” said resident Courtney Schmitz.
Schmitz also railed against the process that created the ordinances, pointing to a lack of input from the fire department about how more density would affect response times as well as condemning a meeting schedule that favored public input from building industry professionals who were more aware of the upcoming vote than residents were.
“I’m so agitated I’m almost furious about this the way it went down,” she said. “The complete lack of transparency.”
Not all residents opposed the ADUs. Jerry Jones said he supported the ordinance as is as a “step in the right direction to keep the community together keep families together.”
“I’m really happy seeing La Mesa playing a part in trying to address the California housing needs,” he said. “I think that it acknowledges that we have legal obligations to the state but also a duty to the rest of the people in the community that aren’t homeowners.”
Lynn O’Shaunesy said she is “strongly in favor” of the ADU ordinances without restrictions, citing her own life story about how she found herself financially stressed after a divorce. She said building an ADU on her property could be a path toward financial stability.
“If you think you know how your life will play out, you really don’t know,” she said. “The idea of a granny-flat appealed to me because after the initial cost, I could potentially rent it out, or I could rent out my beautiful house on Hillcrest Avenue and live in my granny flat.”
Also speaking in favor of passing the ordinances without restrictions were representatives from building and real estate trade groups, local realtors and local contractors.
Caitlin Bigelow, founder of Maxable, a company that specializes in helping homeowners build ADUs, insisted that fear of mass building of ADUs in La Mesa is unfounded because “granny-flats will never be a mass market solution.”
“People love their privacy and their backyards far too much,” she said. “But we have a real opportunity to empower homeowners to find their own solutions to the housing crisis.”
Bigelow said that her company’s surveys of people with or wanting to build ADUs on their property show that the “number one reason people state they want to build granny flats is not for long-term rentals; it’s not for Airbnbs — it’s for family.”
After public comments, the City Council answered questions and addressed concerns raised by residents.
“Even if we adopt the ordinances as it is today, it doesn’t mean [property owners] can just go out and build an ADU,” Vice Mayor Colin Parent said. “They have to submit plans. They have to get approved. There are fees associated with it. There is a review process to ensure that anything built conforms to the rules.”
La Mesa director of Community Development Kerry Kusiak offered up some rough numbers on the potential amount of ADUs that could be built in the city. Of the 13,000 single family homes in La Mesa, he estimated only a few thousand would be able to build ADUs because many properties would not meet setback requirements, or they have a slope issue or other constraint that would prevent approval of a new building on the property.
Kristine Alessio raised the concern that resisting passing a housing ordinance runs the risk of lost funding for the city.
“I heard a lot of concern about parking and I hope everyone understands, that is direct from the state,” she said. “The Governor indicated that SB1 money can be lost if you don’t have a compliant housing element.”
Councilmember Akilah Weber lamented the city’s public outreach effort informing the residents about this issue.
“We should have done a much better job in informing people about this. I was even surprised when I saw it on the agenda for our last meeting,” she said. “I think we really need to listen to the residents of La Mesa and the fact that we may not have been as transparent as we should have and there may need to be more education for the community as a whole.”
Mayor Mark Arapostathis raised concerns about the 1,200-square-foot maximum size of ADUs allowed in the ordinances.
“I was under the impression that it was half the size of your home. I found out that it’s not,” he said. “I found it odd to me if I own a 600-square-foot house that I can have an ADU that is twice that size.”
Arapostathis also wanted to add a minimum lease time for ADU rentals of at least 30 days to make sure any new housing is rented to long-term renters and an owner occupancy provision that would prevent developers from snatching up properties to turn into mini-apartment complexes.
“If we’re really looking for this to be for the use that it’s intended, that should be something that’s added,” he continued. “Also, owner occupancy; I don’t think it should be for the totality of the life of the ADU, but if there’s a way to put a time limit — maybe four years.”
After discussion, Parent motioned to pass the ordinances as is. The motion was seconded by Alessio. The motion passed 3–2 with Arapostathis and Weber voting against the measure.
To view a video of the entire meeting, visit bit.ly/2Jvobqc.
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.