Encinitas program offers incentives to residents to build granny flats


In an effort to increase its admittedly low amount of low-income housing, Encinitas has hired architects to produce two sets of "shovel-ready" designs for small homes that people can build in their backyards.

And, the city is waiving some permit fees to make it less costly to construct these structures, which are commonly called "granny flats" or "mother-in-law cottages."

The new design options, which range from studio units to three-bedroom structures, will be showcased at two community events this month. The first one -- a workshop session on city zoning codes and the new mini-home design program -- is set for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, at City Hall's Poinsettia Room at 505 N. Vulcan Ave.

The second session -- an open house where the various designs will be on display and the architects who drew them will answer questions -- is set for 4 to 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28 in the Encinitas Library community room at 540 Cornish Drive.

The two architects the city hired for the project both admit to having a soft spot for accessory dwelling units. As they unveiled their preliminary designs earlier this month, both of them told the City Council that they have built small housing units in their own backyards. They said they were pleased that the city was now streamlining the permitting process, so other people won't find it as challenging to build these structures.

"I've been through it personally and I know what the homeowners are up against," architect Yvonne St. Pierre of Design Path Studio said as she described a unit she built for her in-laws in her backyard.

In the designs that she's producing for the city, St. Pierre said she focused on creating plans for structures that could be built at very little expense and later expanded when a homeowner has more funds available.

"It's very owner/builder-friendly construction," she said as she described how walls that originally contained windows could be reworked into doorways when the building is later expanded.

Her first design proposal was for a 350-square-foot studio unit with a full-sized bath. The ceiling is high to make the small space more comfortable to live in, but the roof is a flat, tilted expanse to save on costs, she said. Her largest design was a 935-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath option.

Architect Bart Smith of DZN Partners told the council that he focused on trying to give property owners a variety of choices in exterior siding and roofing materials, so the new building would match the property's existing home. He included designs with stucco walls and red tile roofs as well as ones with coastal craftsman features, including exposed wood rafters.

"I'm trying to give you as much choice as possible," he told the council.

His designs ranged in size from a 224-square-foot studio to a 1,199-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home.

City planning officials said the shovel-ready designs could save people up to six months of time and up to $14,000 in construction-related expenses. The city also is waiving some permit fees, which could add up to $4,000 in cost savings, they said.

The city is pursuing the program as part of a multi-pronged effort to increase its supply of low-income housing and meet state mandates. Encinitas is the only city in the county and one of just a few in the state that lacks a current, state-certified Housing Element plan spelling out how it proposes to handle its future housing needs, particularly those of low-income people.

The city's lack of a plan has been the source of multiple lawsuits, and in December a Superior Court judge ordered Encinitas to get a plan approved within 120 days. The city's latest proposed plan, which details what properties in town will be upzoned to accommodate higher-density housing projects, is currently being reviewed by state officials.

Meanwhile, the city also is working on other ways to increase its supply of lower-cost housing. Easing city regulations so that homeowners can build a second, smaller dwelling on their lots and rent it out is seen as one way to achieve this goal, Mayor Catherine Blakespear said.

"This is really exciting and I can't wait to see how many people use (the new designs)," Blakespear said after the architects gave their presentations.

Changes to city ordinances making it easier to build these accessory dwelling units won City Council approval last spring and state Coastal Commission approval in December, a city staff report states.

Under city codes, people can add one, separate accessory dwelling unit that's up to 1,200 square feet, as long as the property's primary residence is larger than that size. If it is not, than the accessory structure cannot be larger than the property's primary residence.

In addition to the accessory units, property owners also can build a "junior accessory unit" of no more than 500 square feet, but that unit needs to be attached to the main house, city paperwork indicates.

Building standards, city ordinance information and other documents can be found on a city web page dedicated to the new Housing for Generations accessory dwelling unit program at:

--Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune