San Diego’s leaders routinely declare that the city is in the midst of a housing crisis.

It’s time to act like it.

Rents are rising. There are not enough beds to get struggling homeless people off the street, even if we wanted to. People with government-subsidized rent can’t even find places to use it. Young people who want to live here are being forced away.

That’s why it’s frustrating to see our leaders claim that city and regional plans have already accommodated all the housing we will need through 2050, as SANDAG’s Charles Stoll did in a KPBS story this month.

Commentary - in-story logoThose are just plans. In practice, we know the gap between what is needed and what is actually being built is in fact widening. We have a housing shortage accumulated over decades that is driving up rents and limiting young people’s ability to enter the housing market. The status quo is not saving us. It’s time to stop being sanguine about our plans, lest we experience a Bay Area-esque housing cataclysm.

The city has a new, impressive Climate Action Plan, which will require us to build lots of new housing in our urbanized area, especially in places that are a five-minute walk to a transit stop. It’s a modest increase in our housing density, and these new, smaller units rely the city’s amenities to be livable. The need for housing and the need to be climate-friendly complement each other.


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

We need a plan to achieve these goals.

The plan would focus on the city’s older, urbanized neighborhoods, from University City in the north, to College Area in the east, west to the beaches, and through Southeastern San Diego and Encanto. These areas are supported by our best transit service and are close to jobs, universities, beaches, bays and Balboa Park.

Success depends not on one-off, large-scale projects from out-of-town investors and developers. The answer is adding more housing, lot by lot, throughout these neighborhoods, mimicking the density patterns we already know and love in Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and La Jolla.

The goals need to be clear: We should increase our annual housing creation by 50 percent annually over the next five years. In 2015, San Diego built roughly 6,000 new homes. Let’s increase that number to 9,000 homes per year, with the additional 3,000 homes all concentrated in our older, urban neighborhoods that are close to transit, jobs and the city’s amenities. If we succeed, we would have increased our housing supply by 15,000 units.

And we don’t need to do it alone. In Sacramento, legislators are already moving forward on a bill that would make it easier to build additional units on an existing property – so-called granny flats. That law would make the job easier, and city leaders could piggyback on the state law, finding ways to make it even easier to build a granny flat in San Diego.

Throughout it all, East Village and downtown will continue to build the large project that are appropriate there, and Rancho Bernardo will continue to add single-family homes. But these new homes added in our existing urban areas will not require new infrastructure investment, because they won’t create major impacts on their neighborhoods.

It isn’t a panacea. It’s a five-year plan to stabilize rent and shift our development expectations.

How do we do it?

There are two big lynchpins to unlock new housing. One is arbitrary thresholds that force projects to win the approval from the City Council or Planning Commission before they can begin. The other is parking requirements.

The city needs to make it possible to build – without political approval – granny flats that allow beach-like development and medium-density projects near transit. If you have a lot within a quarter mile of a transit station, you can build five homes on it, no questions asked. Let’s call this beach density. And, if your half-block project is within 600 feet of a transit station, you can build up to six stories, giving us the transit-oriented development we need. Call this a “climate action zone.”

San Diego has taken on housing crises in the past. After World War II, we allowed secondary dwelling units – granny flats – throughout the city. During the city’s boom-bust periods at the turn of the century, bungalow courts filled our need for transit-oriented development and gave housing options to single women, the working class and other transitional renters before the American Dream meant a single-family detached home with a lawn.

We have been here before. Oddly enough, it’s the same solutions we used before that we should use now.

Howard Blackson is an urban designer, a former member of San Diego’s Civic Innovation Lab and a board member of Civic San Diego.

    This article relates to: Growth and Housing, Housing, Opinion

    Written by Howard Blackson

    Howard Blackson is urban design director at Michael Baker International, an engineering and consulting firm, and a former employee of San Diego's Civic Innovation Lab.

    16 comments
    NP Guy
    NP Guy

    It shouldn't be a limit, everyone has the right to live here and now that we have the climate change plan and everybody will bike and walk, parking and traffic will not be a problem

    Douglas Scott
    Douglas Scott subscriber

    We do need more housing on the many unused, brown field sites along decayed corridors such as (parts) of El Cajon Blvd. and University Avenue to name only a couple of thoroughfares. Reusing these sites will enhance the city and strengthen our public transport system. However, at some point we need to recognize that there is a limit to the number of people this fragile region can sustain. I do not advocate turning people away, but I think we need to focus on educating and building the skill base of a stable population instead of trying to 'grow our GDP' using the petri dish model of endless population growth.


    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    If people want cheaper, then they have to accept being crowded into dense developments with minimal sq. ft.  And if they don't want that, they they need to move elsewhere.  I don't say that with a cold heart.  It is just the reality of the situation.

    I grew up in a family of 7 with 1,100 sq ft, and my husband had about the same with a family of 6.  We didn't feel crowded; it just was our home.  In graduate school, I had 80 sq ft and shared kitchen.  In Manhattan, 100 sq ft and shared kitchen.  People can live in small spaces and be happy.  They do it all over the world.  Did it in Italy, 3 of us, tiny apt, no car, just walk and transit.

    But the other issue is that these units have to be close to jobs or we have to have public transit.  I just don't see a commitment to that.  Much of this tracks back to the developer and gov commitment to sprawl, and that bell can't be unrung.  In fact, they still want to ring it at Lilac Hills and lots of other places.

    And then as Don said, how many people can we have here?  Make it cheap and all that affordable housing will get sucked by new people moving in.  Build more, repeat.  Where does that get you?

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Instead of building endless numbers of new homes for endless population growth, perhaps it's time to reviving the Hell on Earth Club, a civic group originally founded by visionaries like Roger Revelle and Neil Morgan. The original purpose of the organization was to produce counter PR, that would discourage people living in others parts of the nation from migrating here. They put out press releases touting local earthquakes, rainstorm damage, etc.

    But faced with the magnitude of the taxpayer funded industry dedicated to encouraging people to come here, they gave up. If you're living in Buffalo, New York in a blizzard in February and you see TV coverage of a sunny golf tournament at the Torrey Pines golf course, why wouldn't you think about moving your family to sunny San Diego? Unless we find a way to reduce our rate of population growth, or at least stop paying taxes to pay people to encourage more population growth, we'll never be able to build enough new houses to accommodate all the snowbirds heading here. As wealthy snowbirds move here and drive up local housing prices, more low income families will be forced to move out, or to cram multiple families into single family dwellings. Eventually San Diego may become like much of Connecticut, reserved for the rich only. Poor people need not apply.

    Donna Shanske
    Donna Shanske subscribermember

    Adding more density in San Diego's urban core is a great idea from 40,000 feet.  Unfortunately, most well-paying jobs are NOT in the downtown area and NOT on any transit lines.  Also this is why our freeways have become"no-ways" in the past 4-5 years, as commuters jam the "system" to get to work.   San Diego's "reverse commute" does explain this situation, as only 4% of the people living downtown having jobs there; hence, they must get on the road and get to better-paying jobs in finance, real estate, hi-tech and bio-tech sectors where headquarters are located  -  UTC, Sorrento Valley,Sorrento Mesa, Poway, Carmel Valley.  Higher density is great if you have mass transit (metro, Bart, underground, etc.) to move people from their homes to their jobs.  And then you have to deal with the cost of new housing in San Diego:  for example, costs of new condos in the Uptown area are now between $750,000 to $3M/unit.  Unfortunately, most Millenials will only get to live in Uptown if they continue to live with their parents  -  as about 35-40% of them still do. The minimum wage jobs created in San Diego's urban areas - hotel, restaurant, bars, retail - do not allow residents to live and work in their neighborhoods.  A positive suggestion would be to create good-paying job hubs by attracting company headquarters in the downtown area (instead of considering a Charger stadium) that would allow residents to use our current transit system to get to work.  Finally, I am all for higher density, as it saves whatever is left of the back-country of San Diego County for the animals and for humans to take an occasional break from the urban lifestyle....but we need the infrastructure first to make it happen.

    NP Guy
    NP Guy

    The housing prices are really a problem, so what we need to do is built disregarding any rule or regulation, why we created them in the first place?,  we don’t need to worry about quality of live issues, we have a lot space in our parks, so let’s build in Balboa park and Mission bay park, the museum are useless , what  we need is more housing.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    @NP Guy And how about local graveyards? Lots of developable space there. Dead people won't care if we build new houses over their graves, right?

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    http://www.closetheloophole.com


    The only way to 'fix' the housing problem is to end the Prop 13 loophole that allows commercial and investment real-estate owners to avoid property taxes.

    We need to stop empowering the 1% who own the property through corporate shells from being absentee land-lords. Everyone, repeat EVERYONE, can own their own home, even in San Diego, if we create a LAW that states: "ONE PERSON, ONE HOME". No more people owning 5 or 10 homes and 'renting' them at 'market rates'. It is this 'investment property' which causes the housing 'shortages'.

    It is a form of extortion. Everyone needs a place to sleep safely, and will pay as much as they can to have it. When one person can own all the land, they can charge anything they want, and you have no choice but pay. This is immoral.

    No more absentee or corporate land-lords. If you want to rent a room, you should live in the house. If you want to 'invest' in real-estate, you should live in the apartment building. If YOU don't want to live there, then sell.

    Land doesn't belong to you. Like air or water, energy or life, you didn't create the land, you simply use it.

    We have spent hundreds of billions of public money to terraform San Diego, redirecting the Colorado River, pumping water from Sacramento, building endless 8 lane free-ways, in a desert region that can not support 3,000,000 people (much less the coming 5,000,000). The fossil-fuels will run out, and the drought caused by global warming will end the water.

    That economic abuse has enriched the trust-fund babies, the Doug Manchester types, the Ecke family, but at what cost? We are a region that imports every resource and exports war at a profit. We are unsustainable, it will end badly.


    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    @Michael Russell I agree that house flipping and speculation is doing a lot to drive local housing prices skyward.

    NP Guy
    NP Guy

    It's not important how well people live In a place, what it's important is how many people live in a place, and the more the better, now San Diego county has 3 million if we can cramp 3 million more it will be better for everyone, I don't know these 3 million people but I'm sure if they choose to live in a place that will be as shitty as LA they will be happy as I will be, so let's get rid of all open spaces and let's build for everyone, everyone deserves to live here, why is people so selfish.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    And in order to minimize the negative impacts of dense housing, San Diego needs to be more supportive of neighborhoods who want to require permits for street parking.

    Howard Blackson
    Howard Blackson subscribermember

    And, every parking district in the urbanized areas has excess parking dollars generated but only able to be spent on replacing meters and striping. We can use that excess to initiate parking districts in our neighborhoods to manage parking issues that come with more housing. Good point, Derek.

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    Actually Howard RB WON"T be adding new housing unless it goes back and adjust zoning.  That is the overlooked opportunity in the climate action plan (and city processes).  We can pretty much bet on the continued job expansion that will go on in the suburban business parks.  While it is great to see downtown doing well that isn't going to fully suplant robust growth in UTC, Sorrento, RB, Carlsbad, Kearny Mesa, etc.

    So what we need is to also incent owners to think about retrofits in the surbuban area so we can add housing in close proximity to THOSE job centers.
    A key place to look is at the so called "power-center strip malls such as that which can be found along Carmel Moutain Road in CMR with the zombie store that is Sears Outlet.  A City out front on planning would long ago have started to discuss with the REIT that owns it how to think about smart mix-used retrofiting - to add housing in areas which ARE proximate to job centers (indeed potentially walkable).  


    A closely related point is the important of rethinking the co-location policies.  San Diego does NOT really have (in the scope of things) an undersupply of industrial land.  What it does (as you point out) have is a challenge with housing.  Removing the barriers to co-location in certain business parks would again offer the opportunity to build proximate housing.

    Howard Blackson
    Howard Blackson subscribermember

    @Erik Bruvold Indeed and completely agree with the need for removing co-location barriers. My point about RB was the North City region is the place to build free standing SFD housing as we are in need of updating our historically SFD in the urban neighborhoods to attached housing of various sizes (small units to large units with views). Thank you for reading and always appreciate your comments.

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    @Voice SD @Erik Bruvold Oh come now.  They would tear down the big box (cheap as heck to construct, even more to demo) and build on the pad and the obsolete parking lot.  What you would get is 300-500 townhome units.

    What we do know is that in historic terms the US is pretty "overbuilt" in respect to pure retail space if how we measure that is Sales per square foot and it is why there is a ton of movement right now in the industry to transform pure retail plays into "life style" centers with a lot more eateries/entertainment options. 

    Another thing we know is that California has been a wonderful place for a pure experiment.  We KNOW people will drive 2+ hours from a house to a job.  You can not reduce supply in a single county like San Diego - it just pushes the pressure to places like Menifee (or Hemet).  


    And finally San Diego is NOT low wage.  Its median wage is actually a bit more than the US Average.   What makes it FEEL like a low wage community is our high cost of housing - which is a direct result of the lack of supply.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Erik Bruvold The "City of Villages" plan did call for reuse of some of those Power Center spaces, such as the Sears in CMR.  Don't know if you would get 300-500 units, but some of the planning has been done.  Back in 2001.  Maybr need to be updated.  And implemented.