Stephen Thein: "I have been mired in an expensive, time-consuming and ongoing permit process."
San Diego's plans to boost affordable housing include an abundance of granny flats. To that end the city has been overhauling the rules, most recently by dropping all parking requirements for granny flats and allowing property owners to build extra units if they agree to rent restrictions on at least one of them.
Before the changes, applicants faced more hitches and higher permit costs, which did nothing to spur construction of such affordable housing.
But for one Point Loma home-owner, it hasn't been smooth, or fast. Six months in, his project still awaits review. Stephen Thein just wanted to join two existing legal units to create a larger one. In the end, he would have one 1,000-square-foot foot dwelling on Qualtrough Street in the La Playa area.
But the end is nowhere in sight.
"I have been mired in an expensive, time-consuming and ongoing permit process," Thein says.
Forget the city's free, pre-approved granny flat plans. Thein's plans were both simpler and more complicated than that.
He wasn't starting from scratch, adding bathrooms and bedrooms or moving utilities. Instead, he has paid thousands of dollars in fees and plans, he says, "for simply adding 300 square feet to two existing, permitted structures—to make them one."
There's nothing about the property to explain the holdup, he says. "I have a large lot that’s less than 50 percent covered with all structures, none are within setback areas or over one story."
Thein started the work in March without a permit, "thinking it was so minimal I could proceed." The side-by-side units are a guest cottage built in the 1930s and a small game room with a bed and bath that sit behind his house. His infill project would relocate the kitchen from the guest house to the space in between the structures.
However simple the plan, the city requires homeowners to obtain a building permit to ensure the new house meets zoning, building, health and safety codes.
In May, city code enforcement representative Travis Espinosa walked the addition, determined its size was 195 square feet, and added several outlets to the plan. Thein received a violation for converting the rec room and guest quarters into a single dwelling unit without permits, and for expanding part of an existing deck.
Although he applied for a building permit and received a project tracking system number, he hasn't heard anything since and blames the delays on being "back-burnered." Along the way, the city building department moved into and out of new quarters that were found to be contaminated with asbestos, initiated a new online permit process, and was closed due to a Covid infection, he says.
According to the city, there's a code enforcement case for building without a permit. Thein submitted documents on July 3 which were reviewed July 13, but the city then requested more documents and they have not been received, says Gary Geiler, assistant director of development services.
"A companion unit in the coastal zone requires a coastal development permit."
Having to now seek a coastal permit is Thein's biggest fear - "a very expensive, long and arduous process." He doesn't question the need for a building permit, but says the guest house was built legally many years before the city established a coastal permit process.
In recent days, he has sent the city photos from the historical archives in Balboa Park that show the guest house existed before 1936, and the city is reviewing them. Again.
In 1997, when he was remodeling the main house, the city refused to grant a final occupancy permit unless he removed the kitchen and other living facilities from the guest house. But Thein was able to locate the cottage on early fire maps and the assessor’s notes and maps, and the city declared the guest house, kitchen, bath and all, grandfathered in.
"Now, it would seem, I am having to again prove it was always here, as a full-featured, independent second structure."