San Jose Wants to Expedite Permitting and Building of Backyard Homes

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced several changes Tuesday to streamline the process of applying for ADU building permits. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

San Jose on Tuesday announced a series of changes designed to make the permitting process easier for Accessory Dwelling Units—also known as backyard homes or in-law apartments. The goal is to incentivize residents to build more of these units on their existing lots.

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"This is a way for us to build a lot more affordable housing without all the challenge and struggle it takes to build a large apartment complex, which may involve many years of environmental reviews and processing construction," said Mayor Sam Liccardo.

ADUs are required to have a sleeping area, kitchen and full bathroom. They can be attached to the main building, like a converted garage or a basement in-law unit, or they can be stand-alone in the backyard as a separate building.

City officials said in 2016 they processed about 40 applications for these kinds of secondary living units. Now it's up to about 40 applications per week, but they hope with these new changes to the process to increase that number even more.

In what the city is dubbing "ADU Tuesday," residents can sign up for express appointments on Tuesdays to get their plans approved in just about 90 minutes—if everything in the application is correct. Normally, the plan approval process would take more like 20 days.

San Jose city staff perform a mock express appointment for approving ADU building permits. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

Applicants will go into a private room with representatives from the Fire, Public Works and the Planning, Building and Code Enforcement departments, who will all evaluate the project at the same time. This is meant to be faster than staff passing the application from department to department over weeks.

The city is also launching an online ADU portal, which can show homeowners if their property is eligible, as well as allow them to start the permitting process. City officials estimate the majority of single-family homes in San Jose qualify for an ADU.

Councilmember Pam Foley said the city should be doing everything it can "to reduce the cost both from a permitting standpoint and of building an ADU, to create our guidelines in simple language so that the average homeowner can understand all of those things."

"We just need to do a really good marketing campaign and get the word out there," she said.

ADU builders can also now get their plans pre-approved by the city, which can cut down on the time and costs associated with getting a permit approved.

The city's Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department even hired a full-time employee to assist homeowners with getting their ADU permits approved.

"I think it's a really great way to bring a very modest level of new density to our neighborhoods," said Rosalynn Hughey, San Jose's director of planning, building and code enforcement. "Most people aren't going to mind one new additional unit in their neighborhood."

"It might not be a huge huge dent in this housing crisis, but we know that every ADU built, every unit built is gonna make a difference."