A granny flat built at this Normal Heights home, shown here on Jan. 22, 2020, also has a certificate to rent it for less than 30 days. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

San Diego has started enforcing its ban on short-term rentals of newly built granny flats, following an inewsource analysis that identified violators and showed the city let it happen.

The City Council agreed in 2017 to cut the cost of granny flat permits and fees by roughly $15,000, depending on the development. It was an incentive to create long-term affordable housing in a market that is fast pricing out many residents. But council members approved the new law without a plan to enforce it.

Why this matters

How to fix San Diego’s shortage of affordable housing is a problem that has dogged city leaders for years. They eased restrictions on building granny flats as an incentive to build less costly housing for residents.

inewsource cross referenced two city databases to identify people who took the permit breaks but were allowed to rent short-term. Now, the city is doing that same kind of analysis.

“Given the clear violations, the city’s Development Services Department is opening code enforcement investigations and will work directly with the City Treasurer’s Office to implement changes to ensure that the municipal code continues to be enforced,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office said in a statement last week to inewsource.

Code enforcement will open investigations on those addresses with a new granny flat and a tax certificate to rent it for less than 30 days, which “may include properties identified by the inewsource report,” city spokesman Scott Robinson said.

But the debate about short-term rentals, granny flats and affordable housing is far from over in San Diego.

City Attorney Mara Elliott has said short-term rentals are illegal in San Diego’s residential zones, but it’s not enforced. The City Council also has failed at attempts to impose strict regulations on short-term rentals.

Today, the city sets no restrictions on how long a primary dwelling in a single-family residential zone can be rented, but those in multi-family zones are limited to a minimum of seven days.

When council members decided in September 2017 that new granny flats couldn’t be rented for less than 30 days, they never addressed whether that applied to the primary dwelling on the property, said Gary Geiler, deputy director of Development Services. The 30-day minimum only applies to the granny flat, he said.

Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who is running for mayor and has fought against short-term rentals, strongly disagrees with that interpretation. The issue has already been settled, she said, pointing to Elliott’s opinion.

“I’m very frustrated that (Development Services) and the mayor and the city attorney are not enforcing the existing municipal code,” Bry said.
Last month, inewsource found the city allowed at least seven granny flats to rent for less than 30 days. That only represents property owners who are paying room tax on their granny flats.

inewsource has now found at least seven more properties with a granny flat behind a house that can be rented without restriction. While it may be legal according to Geiler, at least one of those property owners admitted renting the granny flat nearly every weekend, in violation of city law.

The true number of illegally operating granny flat vacation rentals is unknown.

And it appears not everyone knows the rules.

When a constituent emailed Councilman Chris Ward’s office to find out if it was legal to rent out their granny flat, a staffer for Ward gave inaccurate information, according to emails inewsource obtained through a public records request. The staffer failed to mention granny flats permitted after September 2017 are prohibited from being rented for less than 30 days.

“As long as you’ve gone through all the proper building permitting processes to build your granny flat, then you are able to rent it out. I am unaware of any regulation that would prohibit you from doing so,” Ward’s staffer said in the Jan. 22 email.

Council President Georgette Gómez, a Democrat running for Congress, has four of these granny flats in her district. She and three other council members insisted on the 30-day rule when the granny flat law changed.

“We have an affordable housing crisis and need to produce as much new housing as possible,” Gómez said in a statement to inewsource.

“I will work with the Mayor’s office and city staff to improve enforcement of the rules for companion units,” she added.

inewsource intern Natallie Rocha contributed to this story.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...