Now San José homeowners have a new one at City Hall
Sarah Shull has been named the City of San José’s first-ever “ADU Ally.” ADU is the acronym for accessory dwelling units, sometimes also called granny flats. Sarah unites strong technical skills with a deep desire to serve residents in a city she says she has grown to love. Her job is to translate, simplify and smooth residents’ passage from idea to final building inspection as a point of contact for homeowners at any time.
Sarah has worked in San José’s Department of Planning, Building, and Code Enforcement for the last five years and has gained an insider’s understanding of a process that can seem mysterious to the uninitiated. “I know what I want when I go into a store,” she says. “I don’t want to hear ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I’m not sure.’ I don’t want to be left without a hand-off to someone else who can actually help me. If I were the customer, I ask, what would I want someone else to do, and I do that.”
Before coming to San José, Sarah honed her customer service at Starbucks and Williams Sonoma. For a number of years in Kentucky, she worked for a federally funded agency to help people who live with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She accompanied her clients on routine appointments or for errands to banks or the grocery store to help them to learn the process of asking and getting the services they needed.
She discovered how hard it was for the people she helped to navigate their lives, not so much as a result of their disabilities but as a result of external barriers. Some places were still not compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Doors didn’t accommodate wheelchairs; credit card payment machines couldn’t be reached by someone confined to a chair. People addressed her rather than her clients.
“That led me to be very righteous,” she says. “There should be more help, and not just for certain pockets and members of society but for everyone. We all can do better.”
Accessory dwelling units have true potential to grow San José’s housing stock. City staff estimate that 120,000 single-family properties—about two-thirds of the city’s single-family homes—sit on lots big enough for an ADU. Since June, a YouTube video tutorial that Sarah helped produce on building an accessory dwelling unit in San José has attracted more than 2,900 views.
Homeowners with an interest in building an ADU should begin by establishing that their lot is large enough—at least 3,000 square feet, Sarah says. Then they should speak with a city planner to understand how the new ADU could be situated on their property either as an extension of the existing home or as free-standing structure. Then and only then should they hire an architect or designer. The city has prepared an “ADU Universal Checklist,” which offers step-by-step guidance.
Once homeowners have architectural and design plans, they can arrange for the city’s development services staff to review them, either through express plan review on ADU Tuesdays or regular plan review on any weekday, Sarah says. During express plan review on ADU Tuesdays, staff members from all relevant departments including planning, building, public works and fire come together to review the ADU plans at the same time. If the plans have been prepared in accordance with city requirements, the staff review can be completed in ninety minutes.
Homeowners should remember to bring four completed documents to plan review, Sarah says:
Sarah encourages interested San José homeowners to explore the ADU option. “I can see them all of the way through to the end of the project, help them to submit or resubmit plans, and then through permit issuance. And when they need to schedule inspections, I can connect them to the right city staff members.”
Now that’s an ally.
By Sharon Simonson
Reach Sarah Shull at [email protected] and 408-793-5302.
Sharon Simonson is long-time Silicon Valley real estate journalist. She reported for the Silicon Valley Business Journal for nearly a decade and was editor-in-chief for The Registry for five years. Look for her byline in upcoming editions of SJBackyardHomes.com as she profiles the residents, builders, and city staff contributing to the growth of ADU units and solving our housing crisis.