San Jose: Permits for ‘granny units’ spiked last year, but 2020 may be bigger
Abodu's 495-square-foot model "backyard home" sits in a lot in Redwood City, but soon the founders hope more will crop up around San Jose. Image courtesy of Abodu.

Last year was a big year for accessory dwelling units — or “granny units” — in San Jose, where the number of people seeking to build the little backyard homes nearly doubled from 2018, and the number permitted to start construction grew even faster.

Recent San Jose data shows that 695 applications for new ADUs were received by the city in 2019, compared to 350 the year before. Meanwhile, 416 ADU projects were granted permits to move forward last year, which is more than twice the number of permits issued in 2018.

“There are a few reasons (for the increases),” said James Son, San Jose’s planning deputy director. “I think one of the biggest factors would be the ADU ordinance — we relaxed some of the ADU ordinance that related to what can be built, the height, the setback and all those kinds of things.”

Indeed, in an attempt to alleviate the housing shortage, San Jose has launched several initiatives, updated its rules for ADU buildings twice and embraced new state laws over the past few years to make the complex process of building a backyard home easier, particularly for people who want to create a single new residential unit in their backyard.

The average rent for a granny unit in the South Bay is around $1,850 per month, and a key part of the affordable housing equation in the South Bay, according to Rosalynn Hughey, San Jose’s planning director.

“ADUs can help us address the housing crisis, and San Jose is committed to making ADUs easy to build,” she said in a statement last year as the city launched its initiatives to speed up production of the little homes.

But San Jose officials have been working to promote ADU growth for years.

The city made its first big changes to the ADU regulations in mid-2018, reducing the minimum lot size for a new backyard home from 5,445 square feet to 3,000 square feet, allowing for taller and larger homes to be built. Those changes also allowed for the homes to be built both as a stand-alone and on top of another structure, like a garage.

Those are the changes that likely affected the 2019 numbers the most, Son said.

San Jose also launched its “ADU Tuesdays” at City Hall, in which property owners can sidle up to the city’s permitting counter and get expedited help navigating forms and getting approvals, Son said. On ADU Tuesdays, a property owner can walk out of City Hall with a permit for their project if no changes are needed for their plan.

Housing startup Abodu last year also partnered with San Jose as its first “pre-approved builder.” That means anyone who uses the company’s prefabricated backyard homes can move through the process faster, as long as they don’t make changes to the approved design.

Next month, the company’s first ADUs will be arriving at homes in San Jose, Abodu co-founder John Geary said in an interview Friday. The start of the year has been a boon as well, he added.

“People have been really receptive to the quick turnaround time with our units,” Geary said, noting it’s currently taking between two and three months for customers to get their homes.

Looking ahead, Son also estimates the number of ADU applications and approvals will only increase.

San Jose leaders adopted a new set of updates to the city’s ordinance on Dec. 17 to align with state laws that went into effect on Jan. 1. The new ADU rules are more relaxed and reduce fees for homes less than 750 square feet in size.

A San José Spotlight report last year revealed long delays and exorbitant costs for building granny units, including a $250,000 bill longtime political scientist Terry Christensen expected to pay for his unit.

Councilmembers also started out 2020 by unanimously approving an ADU amnesty program for residents who want to bring their backyard homes up to code without paying hefty penalty fees.

“I could see that creating a greater interest in ADUs in 2020,” Son said. “I think there’ll be some more increases (in applications).”

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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