Mayor Kevin Faulconer and several City Council members have released plans or memos this year laying out policies they think could speed much-needed housing development in the city.

City Council members David Alvarez, Chris Cate, Georgette Gómez, Scott Sherman and Chris Ward all issued memos in January calling for a broad array of policy changes, and Faulconer in June detailed a series of reforms to address San Diego’s housing shortage. Gómez released a more detailed action plan last month.

Democrats and Republicans agree the region is facing an epic crisis of both housing supply and affordability – and that they must pursue development incentives and regulatory reforms to address it.

That doesn’t guarantee swift overhauls. City leaders will likely face opposition from residents and interest groups and at least some bureaucratic red tape. There also isn’t wholesale agreement on the best path forward.

But among the housing reform plans put forward so far, there is some significant agreement that could open the door to actual policy changes.

Set housing production goals.

For many city leaders and advocates, it’s a simple concept: You can’t measure progress if you don’t set goals.

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In their memos, Council members called on the city to annually report progress on housing production, compare that progress with needed housing supply in the city and set goals accordingly. Faulconer’s plan committed to an annual report measuring the existing housing supply for middle-class and affordable housing, the number of units the city’s signed off on building, the city’s rental vacancy rate and more.

Work is already under way on this.

City Councilman Scott Sherman, who leads the City Council’s land use subcommittee, said his committee will soon review a consultant’s report suggesting neighborhood-by-neighborhood goals for housing development. The discussion’s tentatively scheduled for Sept. 21.

Jack Straw, the mayor’s point person on land use issues, noted the city’s long gotten a sense of the gap between needs and reality through a state-mandated report known as the Regional Housing Needs Assessment. The report does provide city-by-city numbers.

But it only comes out every eight years. That makes it a less effective accountability tool.

“The value in an inventory report is keeping it at the forefront of the discussion,” Straw said.

Incentivize development near transit.

If people live and work near transit options, the conventional wisdom is that they’ll be able to drive less, reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change in the process.

City officials have long seemed to unanimously agree on the need for more development in transit corridors for that reason. But when it comes to actually making it happen on specific projects, they’ve backed down under pressure. Now that goal is a consistent tenant in city policymakers’ reform proposals thanks to the city’s Climate Action Plan, which commits the city to that approach.

There are differing proposals on how to execute this.

Gómez wants the city to propose state legislation to give affordable housing developers building in transit areas more flexibility on unit size. She believes it’d give developers more of a financial incentive to build smaller, more affordable units.

A Gómez spokesman said the councilwoman expects a City Council committee to consider her proposal this fall.

Other City Council members suggested more general reforms, such as reduced development fees and process approvals for projects in transit areas.

Faulconer’s team is already working on some overhauls.

His plan weaves the focus on new development in transit areas into incentive programs meant to encourage more middle-income housing and affordable housing developments. Projects in areas close to transit would be eligible for more incentives, including speedier development permit processing. The expansion of an existing affordable housing development program meant to shorten processing time and limit development costs for projects with affordable housing units is expected to go into effect in much of the city shortly after the City Council takes a second vote on the matter in coming weeks. That expansion specifically calls out projects near transit.

Faulconer’s team is still working out the details on the middle-income housing plan but hopes to bring it to the City Council in winter 2019.

Straw said the mayor’s open to other policy proposals.

“If it generally falls within the approach we’ve outlined here, we’re open to considering it,” Straw said.

Sherman said he’s started looking more seriously at transit-area development incentives that he could bring to the committee now that an initial slate of reforms pushed by Faulconer has moved forward.

But City Councilman David Alvarez, vice chair of the committee and a key Sherman ally on housing reforms, said he’s not satisfied with the pace of transit-related reforms. He’d like to see Council members pursue a more aggressive timeline on policies to incentivize development near areas with transit options.

“I think we are waiting for the [Faulconer] administration to bring things forward,” Alvarez said.

Reduce parking requirements, especially near transit.

When developers pursue projects, they’re required to include a certain number of parking spots per unit – and that can add significant costs.

There’s consensus that those requirements need to change.

“I think everybody agrees that the parking issue is something that gets in the way of development,” Sherman said. “Now what we’ve got to do is come to an agreement on what those requirements should be.”

Republicans’ plans focus most on the need for parking requirement reforms in transit areas.

Faulconer has directed the city to move forward on proposing new parking standards within transit areas. Straw said the city’s set to have a consultant on board by October to study options, allowing for that study to be released this winter.

Sherman said he hopes the committee can discuss parking standards by the end of the year.

Democrats may push for broader discussions.

Alvarez, Gómez and City Councilman Chris Ward each brought up the possibility of reduced parking requirements or workarounds on a broader array of projects in their plans.

For example, Ward said, the city might consider alternatives such as tandem parking or car-sharing programs.

Make it easier to build granny flats.

Granny flats – smaller units often set in backyards – have long served as more affordable rental options for residents in some of San Diego’s older neighborhoods, and city leaders have agreed it needs to be easier to build them throughout the city.

passed last year required some easing of the rules, and the City Council voted 8-1 last month to loosen a handful of requirements for granny flats, including specialized height restrictions and setback requirements.

But Council members say they’re not finished.

Alvarez and Sherman have voiced concerns about granny flat permitting and development costs that can average more than $20,000.

Gómez proposed that the city consider a two-year pilot program setting a $2,000 cap on permitting and development impact fees for new granny flats, sometimes known as companion units.

At the City Council’s request, city staffers are beginning to take a more holistic look at development fees, and last month promised to give the Council more details on granny flat fees and possible adjustments in September.

    This article relates to: City Council, Government, Housing

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I've seen permitting costs quoted as $20,000 and more for a single family dwelling.  I'd love to see a breakdown of these numbers.  How can they be so high?  Are we reinventing the wheel on each new property?

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    It looks like the politician's "solutions" call for upzoning what they will call "Transit Oriented Developments" (TOD) projects with higher densities in the urban core areas, without clearly defining what they mean by TODs. I've seen developers claiming that their proposed projects are TODs, even when no public transit serves their properties, arguing that perhaps someday there may be a bus line serving the area. That is now Transit Oriented Development. I know because I helped draft the city of San Diego's original TOD ordinances in 1990. When we said TOD, we meant specific neighborhoods already served by public transit, not some kind of pie in the sky. Thus, the politicians should be very careful what they designate as a TOD. Unless a proposed project is in an existing neighborhood already served by the trolley or MTS' bus lines, it is not capable of becoming a TOD, at least not until SANDAG and MTS update their transit routes to serve the projects neighborhood. But city hall politicians don't want to be bothered with silly semantics. They want to rush to upzone neighborhoods all over the region and call them TODs, they provide subsidize developers who build higher density apartment blocks that will create massive new traffic problems in the target neighborhoods. If that happens, TODs will become a dirty word and existing neighbors will fight proposed TOD designation and zoning in their communities. A project proposal for new density in a neighborhood that is not already service by our local trolley or bus lines cannot be a TOD, no matter how the developers and politicians spin it.

    In addition, the local governments contemplating upzoning a neighborhood for TODs needs to set up mechanisms to determine whether or not the residents who move into a new apartment complex end up using public transit, or just keep commuting to work and back in single passenger cars. MTS and local governments have created higher density apartments and condo complexes near trolley stations in the past, but as far as I know none of them have done any follow on studies to find out whether or not people living in TODs actually use transit. If not, they haven't created a TOD. They've just benefited their developer contributors and kept contributing to our growing traffic and air pollution situation by packing more people into existing neighborhoods without increasing their use of transit.

    JP de Kervor
    JP de Kervor

    Instead of trying to outsmart all the people of San Diego, lets not pick winners and losers and rather just lower the cost and time required to build /rebuild units.  Hold engineers and architects accountable and get rid of plan checkers at the city.  They do not take any responsibility should housing fail, however they add cost and time, which equals risk for developers.  Developers will build what is needed, and if they don't, they will go out of business.  Let the people, that is, the market choose.  Counsel should not favor any types of development, and should not micromanage the owners of the property should they choose to short term rent, as long as they pay their taxes and follow the established rules.