Staedler: Let’s keep it simple when it comes to ‘granny units’

    One of the most commonly discussed housing items in the Bay Area involves Accessory Dwelling Units — or ADUs — also called ‘granny units.’

    If you talk to someone who’s gone through the process, particularly in San Jose, they will tell you their tales of woe. San Jose has been making piecemeal process improvements on letting property owners build ADUs, and homeowners have aired complaints about the process to councilmembers over the last several years.

    The main complaints center around parking requirements, fire code issues triggered on structures more than 500 square feet and unanticipated fees, such as park and school fees. San Jose has been working on these issues, but the time it’s taking to solve them is another cause for concern.

    One question that I often hear is: Can I have an ADU in my backyard? Here is the city’s explanation of where it is allowed:

    ADUs are allowed in residential R-1, R-2, and R-M zones, and in PD zones as allowed by the covenants of the PD zone.

    Do you know your home’s zoning in San Jose? If you don’t, you are not alone. Here’s a link to San Jose’s website to check on that: Just click on the button to search for permit, property or zoning info. Type in the address or Assessor’s Parcel Number, hit enter and it will show you the address and zoning. Click the address link and it will take you to another page where you can click on the “Property Info” button to get more information on your property.

    As part of the piecemeal improvements to the regulations, San Jose has simplified its parking standards over the last year. The parking exemption criteria is now this riddle:


    Per State law, no additional parking is required for an ADU that meets any of the following criteria:

    • The ADU is located within .5 mile of a public bus stop or rail station, with a path of travel that is publicly accessible. Find transit maps at The ADU is located within a historic district listed in the City’s Historic Resources Inventory (visit
    • The ADU is part of or within the primary residence or existing accessory building.
    • The ADU is on a street requiring on-street parking permits but the permit has not been offered to the occupant of the ADU.
    • The ADU is located within one block of where a motor vehicle provides hourly and daily service as part of a regional fleet operated by a public agency or publicly leased motor-vehicle-sharing organization.

    Another shocking issue is the fees that hit homeowners’ checkbooks. My Naglee Park neighbor, Terry Christensen, has been going through the process of building an ADU over the last several years. Terry was kind enough to share with me the fees that he has paid to date for his ADU.

    The two most disturbing figures are $4,850 for parks fees and $1,879 for schools. I’m a huge supporter of the development of parks throughout San Jose, but this seems to be a bit steep for a 540 square foot ADU. The school fee seems disproportionate as well since I don’t believe that ADUs will be a huge driver for new students in local jurisdictions.

    The latest response to this issue from City Hall is Mayor Sam Liccardo’s new “YES, IN MY BACKYARD” (YIMBY) Affordable Housing Program. Here are the basics of his proposed $5M initiative per his May 14 memo.

    1. Partner with Housing Trust Silicon Valley to administer the program, including initial loan set up, outreach and compliance.
    2. Waive all City impact fees associated with developing an ADU or converting a garage for homeowners who participate in the program if the loan applicant agrees to restrict the rent of the unit for the designated duration to ensure affordability.
    3. The forgivable loan program should include the following terms:
    4. Homeowners who agree to a deed of trust to rent their ADU to low-to moderate- income households will be provided with loans they can use to pay permit fees and construction costs;
    5. Such loans will be forgiven on an annual basis as homeowners establish that they have complied with the deed of trust;
    6. The restricted rent must be affordable for low-to moderate-income households;
    7. The per-unit loan will not exceed a maximum amount, such as $20,000 or other reasonable amount recommended by Staff and approved by Council, that will ensure that city processing fees will not add to the cost of ADU development. The loan would be in default if the homeowner attempts to list the ADU via AirBnB or other similar short-term rental service within the loan duration.

    This red-tape bonanza seems to be the opposite of what is needed. Property owners will not want to have covenants on their property for at least five years. What is the implication to property owners for a “forgivable loans” as income per the IRS? How can property owners finance ADUs or refinance their property with these restrictions?

    Who is going to verify the residency and non-use of AirBnB? Is the Housing Trust Silicon Valley going to carry the cost of staffing oversight and the legal counsel needed to craft the required legal documents? How is the money going to be tracked to ensure it is spent properly? There are more questions than answers and it’s not going to move the needle one iota in terms of ADUs and the housing tragedy that we are witnessing.

    Let’s focus on reducing red tape — not adding to it, and let’s keep it simple. Our elected officials owe it to the good residents of San Jose to at a minimum do that.

    San José Spotlight columnist Bob Staedler is a principal at Silicon Valley Synergy, a San Jose-based land use and development consulting firm. His columns appear every first Monday of the month. Contact Bob at [email protected] or follow @BobStaedler on Twitter.

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