Khamis: Accessory dwelling units—a success story
A look inside the 'granny units' created by housing startup Abodu, which is working with San Jose to build more of these backyard cottages. Courtesy of Abodu.

While there is currently an intense debate about the densification of single-family home zoning to multi-unit zoning, a housing initiative called “Opportunity Housing,” densification of single-family lots with accessory dwelling units (ADUs) has been legal for many years.

In 2017, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, along with the City Council, worked to simplify and reduce permitting fees of ADUs as a path to deliver naturally affordable housing to our housing stock. Instead of being met with massive opposition, the community generally accepted densification through ADUs, so much so that this program has become a model for speeding up housing production.

To accelerate ADU production, the San Jose City Council reduced regulations to allow ADUs on smaller lots, allowed for two-story ADUs, increased the ADU square footage limit from 750 square feet to 1,200 square feet and even allowed for an amnesty program for unauthorized buildings to receive retroactive approval. For ADUs that are 750 square feet or below, the state eliminated park and school fees and the city reduced additional fees normally collected to subsidize low-income housing.

Earlier this year, the city launched a pilot program offering 0% interest loans to 20-30 San Joseans to build backyard homes. The pilot program is designed to reduce costs, speed construction and ease permitting challenges, according to Liccardo.

City staff also came up with ideas to streamline the process, such as assigning an ADU ally to help deal with permitting problems and to educate the public about the process of building ADUs. The ADU ally, Sarah Shull, has conducted numerous community meetings, both virtual and in-person, with councilmembers and is currently producing a video to help prospective ADU customers understand the importance of working through our ADU Universal Checklist.

The city created a pre-approved ADU vendor list and pre-approved plans so people interested in building an ADU can have trusted plans and contractors to choose from. San Jose also launched a Building Permit Services webpage in March 2020 to accommodate virtual online appointments. These processes are all aimed at streamlining ADU production to help alleviate the housing shortage.

There is more good news on ADUs. The California Housing Finance Agency has an ADU grant program to reimburse up to $25,000 in costs associated with the construction of an ADU. For more information about the grant program and other ADU resources, visit the ADU corner provided by the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors.

Eliminating fees and simplifying the process have yielded massive increases in the number of ADUs permitted in San Jose. In fact, permits for ADUs have increased from 35 per year in 2016 to 349 in 2020. This year, the Planning and Building Department has already received 350, with an entire quarter remaining in the year. This is a 1,000% increase in ADU permits!

San Jose’s Accessory Dwelling Unit Permit Activity Dashboard.

While San Jose’s efforts to spur development with its ADU programs may not solve our housing supply struggles alone, there is a basic lesson that needs to be learned. If we want to increase our housing supply, we need to reduce fees and streamline regulations.

Johnny Khamis is a former San Jose councilmember representing District 10. He now works as a public relations consultant for the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors.

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