Maybe San Diego had the wrong idea to build more housing.

For years, debates over building enough homes to accommodate a growing population have come down to a single bad word for people who like their neighborhoods as they are: density.

A new strategy – or, if you’d rather, a capitulation – is emerging.

Instead of increasing density one community at a time, some in the city are now just trying to make it easier to build new housing everywhere at once.

San Diego has a long-term growth plan, and a heralded blueprint to slash the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Both require the city to buck its suburban development pattern and build many more homes in dense urban neighborhoods.

City planners have tried to do this by updating community plans,  outlines for where and how much development can go into a given neighborhood.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

In practice, those plans rarely increase density very much – mostly because the idea rattles residents who organize against it and often persuade elected officials to change course.

Colin Parent, policy counsel for Circulate San Diego and a city councilman in La Mesa, said it’s time to abandon the idea.

“It’s a political loser,” he said. “Admitting that localized land use conversations are not suited to positive urbanist outcomes is step one. These approaches are doomed to failure.”

His organization this month released a report on how cities could increase development near transit stations to provide housing in an economically and environmentally responsible way.

That plan doesn’t ask city leaders to boldly stand by plans to increase density. Instead, it proposes ways to change citywide regulations to make it cheaper, easier and faster to build the housing that’s already allowed.

Those policies would include things like dramatically cutting the amount of parking developers need to build if their projects are near transit stations. The density in that area wouldn’t change, but it would be easier to achieve the density that’s already allowed.

Likewise, the city could change how it charges fees for new development. Now, it charges a specific fee for each unit; it could instead charge by the square foot, in hopes that it would encourage developers to build more, smaller units to get a better bang for their buck.

The new approach is likewise an admission that it isn’t always the density in a given area that keeps developers from building there. Often other regulations – like parking minimums, or improvements to nearby roads and infrastructure that developers are required to make if they build something – are the issues that discourage new development.

Imagine a given block that has two homes on it. The zoning says as many as four homes could be built there. Instead of fighting for a change to eight homes, the city could instead make it cheaper and easier to build the four.

In other words, Parent’s saying it’s time for the city to concede that it can’t increase density, and find a way to build more housing anyway.

The change in strategy was reflected in memos from five San Diego City Council members last week over how to address the city’s housing crisis. They each focused more on finding citywide policies they could change right away, rather than continuing a neighborhood-level fight.

Councilman Scott Sherman, chair of the Council’s committee on housing that hosted a housing summit last week, said shifting away from community plans reflected the city’s newfound sense of urgency.

“It’s an acknowledgment of limitations,” he said. “It takes forever to update those plans. If we have to wait for those things to get done, we’ll never address the problem.”

Other proposals include making it easier to build accessory units – or granny flats – changing the way the city measures the effects of new development on traffic, waiving fees on low-income housing and making community and historical oversight boards less powerful.

Councilman David Alvarez, vice chair of the committee, is still pushing for some neighborhood-focused changes in his district, but agrees that upzoning through community plans isn’t the solution – and in his case, it’s because many communities that have increased density still haven’t seen new development because they aren’t as attractive to developers. He’s also pushing for the city to find money to spur development on its own.

“Those are important, but it’s not a solution,” he said. “There are challenges there that we need to accept that in many communities you need a cash incentive or investment to encourage development, and the city needs to play a role.”

There’s historical precedent for the city’s realization.

California’s slow-growth movement in the 1970s and 1980s passed voter initiatives that impeded development. But by the end of the 1980s, advocates increasingly pushed for restrictions on entire regions, rather than in specific areas, and they stopped winning.

Developers who had been on their heels defeated regional initiatives in Riverside, San Diego and Orange County, former San Diego planning director Bill Fulton writes in his history on the development of Los Angeles, “Reluctant Metropolis.”

“In suburban counties, the lesson was clear: The dynamics driving growth were regional, but opposition to growth was local,” he wrote. “People might vote against development in their neighborhood or in their small municipality, but they probably wouldn’t vote against sweeping restrictions all across the region… in part because they just didn’t care.”

It’s a similar lesson to the one San Diego is learning now.

The new, seemingly bipartisan consensus is to largely admit defeat in neighborhood-level density fights and instead, just pass citywide policies that make it easier to build within the existing density.

    This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Housing, Land Use, Must Reads

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    Eddie Barnett
    Eddie Barnett

    If they do allow granny flats, they should also prohibit owners from turning those into temp rentals via AirBnB, etc.

    Hotels belong in hotel zones and residences belong in residential zones!

    If you want to operate a hotel, then go buy one in a hotel zone and leave residences to long term renters!

    David Lynn
    David Lynn subscribermember

    There seems to be some validity here, though I agree with other commentors as well.  We used to own a single family home in Hillcrest on a lot zoned R4 (four homes allowed).  However, when we explored possibilities of development, we were advised there was no chance we'd ever actually be allowed to build 4 homes on the lot.  How many lots with appropriate zoning already exist, but no real options to move forward? 

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    These issues are driven by continued desparte attempts to get the public to revert to mass transit, despite SANDAG analyses showing on road vehicles superior in pollution and GHG reduction. 30 years expensive attempts, and the public keeps saying; on demand personal same vehicle direct to actual destination.

    The mass transit era is over. Uber and copetitprs show all members of the  public, public, especially non drivers can have their needs. Self driving cars come later.

    Then many won't care about parking. Hundreds of acres will be freed up. Uber, etc. abolishes mass transit's access deficiency. Communities can be desiggne as the public wants

    Let's look ahead, not behimd.

    marco gonzalez
    marco gonzalez subscribermember

    The problem is leadership. Our City Council members need to decide, are they compasses, or are they weather vanes? They were elected to lead, which includes making difficult decisions. All of the credible studies say that more density near transit is the most affordable and sustainable way to meet our housing needs. The unwillingness to increase densities in the updated Community Plans is simply a failure to do what's right, for fear of electorate retribution. Just call it what it is. They choose votes over the planet and good planning. This notion that we should abandon what's right for what's expedient is about the most backwards argument I've heard in the debate thus far.

    If we had leadership with vision, we'd have high density mixed use along Clairemont Mesa Blvd and Balboa Blvd, and light rail down both of those streets and El Cajon Blvd. We'd have pressure from electeds in the urban core at SANDAG to stop wasting money on freeway widening and instead invest in the transit extensions that will make these communities desirable to developers. All we're getting now is more of the same...

    bgetzel subscriber

    Making it easier to develop the allowable homes in a neighborhood is a good idea. But it does not mean that we should abandon smart growth/climate sensitive development goals. How do the councilman who are supporting the new approach intend on the city accomplishing the city's CLimate Action Plan? Councilmen have to have the guts to standup for what is good for the entire city and try to educate individual neighborhoods that its density can be sensitivey increased. A study of a few years ago identified San Diego as the least urbanized city (i.e. 49% of the land area is suburban in character) of any of the top 10 largest cities in the country. That is just not sustainable.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Because parking attracts cars and burdens roads, development fees should be proportional to the number of planned parking spaces and feet of street frontage. Also, the city should assess a fee for undeveloped parcels (including those with nothing but pavement) in order to discourage land banking.

    Joan Lockwood
    Joan Lockwood

    I agree with Pat, it is an affordability issue not necessarily those huge posh (or not so posh, in some cases) sky scrapers that charge 1695 for a 400 square foot studio...and yet our small business base fights a minimum wage of 10.50 an hour.

    Whats wrong with this math?

    I am not syaing I have the answer but its high time the city and county get the answer.  It is not sustainable.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Joan Lockwood "...and yet our small business base fights a minimum wage of 10.50 an hour."  It's easy to construct analogies like this one, but frankly, I don't see the connection.  Mom and Pop stores are typically operating on a shoe string and see cost increases of whatever kind as a threat to their survival.  I don't believe they view their establishments as experiments in social policy, or that they signed up to provide "living wage" jobs, however these are defined.

    My observation is that a lot of the noise comes from larger businesses, e.g., our large hotels.

    Pat Seaborg
    Pat Seaborg subscribermember

    I hadn't heard before that permitting fees are charged by unit instead of per square foot. That explains why so much new housing consists of megamansions which don't seem to be in short supply. Change that to provide incentives for building efficiency apartments, and maybe we make meaningful progress on our housing affordability crisis

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Pat Seaborg Duh!  A flash of common sense at last.  I'll be eager to hear the rebuttals. Congratulations!  

    kristi byers
    kristi byers subscriber

    @GK @Pat Seaborg  Often times, developers must pay municipality-designated costs in addition to permitting fees.  These can include fees associated with public, street and infrastructure improvements, parkland dedications, drainage, school facilities mitigation, traffic signal installation, water system buy-in, wastewater buy-in, water authority capacity, etc.  Some of these fees are charged per acre, per square foot, per vehicle trip, per meter size while some of these fees are charged per unit (whether that unit is a 600 SF one bedroom or a 2,400 SF four bedroom).  These per unit fees can end up being thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per unit.  When they are fixed on a per unit basis, these fees end up making up a higher percentage of cost for the smaller units and discouraging the building of more, smaller units.  I am encouraged with the recommendation in the Circulate San Diego’s report to recalculate residential fees from a per unit basis to a per SF basis.

    Eddie Barnett
    Eddie Barnett

    @Pat Seaborg So true! We've been housing hunting recently and most of the newer homes being built are all huge 2 story, 2,000+ or 3,000+ sqft monsters! Sure, some people need something that big in case of huge families, etc.

    But, lots of people are just 2 adults and if they have kids, at most maybe 2 kids.

    No entry level homes being built.

    Plus with the houses being this big, the builders get more bang for the buck, since they sell by sqft.

    GK subscriber

    @Pat Seaborg From what I can tell after a quick search of City and County permitting fee schedules, the permitting fees are pretty trivial relative to the overall payback of new construction.   Though it's a little difficult to sort out because there are lots of different kinds of permitting fees (some of which are already based on square footage).  

    Though I'm all for the change, I wouldn't expect it to be a panacea.  

    Karlos Garcia
    Karlos Garcia

    Good news/bad news. But it's better to do something that will help rather than continuing to bang your head against the wall.