San Jose housing crisis: Terry Christensen will spend $250K to build ‘granny unit’
Terry Christensen stands inside his partially constructed ADU on May 23. Photo by Kyle Martin.

San Jose officials vow to make it quicker, easier and cheaper to build ‘granny units’ to alleviate Silicon Valley’s housing crisis, but tell that to Terry Christensen.

The longtime political scientist and Naglee Park resident has spent $30,000 since Oct. 2017 — and will fork over upwards of a quarter million dollars — to build a 540-square foot cottage in his backyard.

“We did talk about pulling the plug more than once,” said Christensen, 75. “We’re going to manage. We decided to go through with it, but once you get to a certain point, there’s no turning back.”

Christensen is hoping his secondary unit will be done by July, nearly two years after he started the process. He’s building the unit so he can “age in place” and to house his caretakers in the future. Christensen and his partner want to stay in their house for as long as they can, renting out the cottage or using it as a guest room in the meantime.

By the time he’s done, Christensen estimates the granny unit will cost him about $250,000.

San Jose lawmakers this year have focused on cutting the red tape for building “accessory dwelling units” — or ADUs — on homeowners’ land as a means to address the city’s immediate need for more housing. But Christensen and others said that while the process has gotten “easier” — it’s definitely not easy.

One of the delays for Christensen was awaiting approval of his application and receiving permits, which he said took several months. He had to make design and planning changes before getting the green light to build.

“Part of the problem is we got different answers from different people,” Christensen said of his experience with the city’s planning department. “It’s been a frustrating process. It’s frustrating if you go back and get a different answer, and that happened to us a few times — more than a few times.

In an effort to simplify the process, San Jose officials eliminated a requirement that the ADU needed to be 5-feet away from a backyard property line, but that was after Christensen already started building. He calls the setback “wasted space.”

“There were a couple changes that helped us,” said Christensen, such as a change in the parking policy that no longer required him to provide a parking slot for his tenant since he lives a half-mile from public transit. “There are other changes that will help plenty of other people now.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo, along with Councilmembers Pam Foley, Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas, have proposed reducing fees and allocating $5 million for loans to those who want to build an ADU on their land. And several state bills, such as Fremont Sen. Bob Wieckowscki’s Senate Bill 13, have potential to eliminate more barriers for building the units throughout California.

According to records from San Jose’s planning department, the number of applications to build ADUs increased by hundreds over the last three years. In 2016, the city received 49 applications and issued 39 permits. Between 2017 and the end of last month, the city received 762 applications and issued 385 permits.

Still, San Jose leaders acknowledge there’s more work to do.

“If I don’t have a lot of debt on my main house, taking out a loan to build a $250,000 ADU is probably something I can do,” said Cheryl Wessling, a spokeswoman for the city’s Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department. “But if I have a huge mortgage already on my main house, why would I go out and take on more debt to build an ADU?”

Additionally, Wessling said, general contractors, plumbers and electricians are expensive throughout the region. Wessling acknowledged the complexities with building codes and recommended San Jose residents hire experienced contractors to ensure their plans don’t get stalled due to inaccuracies or other setbacks.

The city’s self-help permitting center will soon have a kiosk dedicated to providing ADU information, Wessling added, and the city offers free consultations with a planner to help homeowners with their ADU plans.

“I think the most important thing is for people to, before they invest in the building permits and going through plan reviews, come and speak with a planner who can look at where you’re headed and advise you on some things you should be aware of,” Wessling said.

Christensen isn’t the only San Jose homeowner waiting months and spending tens of thousands of dollars to build an ADU.

“As an individual homeowner who probably has never interacted with the planning department before, maybe for construction people this is just normal and they’ve gotten used to it,” said Matt Gustafson, a downtown resident near Roosevelt Park. “But my expectation was not that it was going to be a long and frustrating process where you’re going weeks or months without getting updates on the status of where your plans are at.”

Gustafson, who’s currently building a 540 square foot unit on his property to house a homeless individual, said the process “should be way simpler.” He began construction last summer, and the project has already cost about $15,000.

Gustafson said he’s building the secondary home to “put our money where our mouth is” and add to the city’s housing stock.

“It’s nice to feel like we can actually contribute something personally,” Gustafson said, “even if it’s just one unit.”

Contact Kyle Martin at kylebmartin96@gmail.com or follow him @Kyle_Martin35 on Twitter.

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