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City Council's Odd Couple Finds Common Cause on Housing

Republican Scott Sherman and Democrat David Alvarez are pushing a series of proposals aimed at combating the city’s high housing costs.

San Diego’s most liberal and conservative Council members are teaming up to lower housing costs in the city.

Through the Council’s Smart Growth and Land Use committee, Republican Scott Sherman and Democrat David Alvarez are pushing a series of proposals aimed at combating the city’s high housing costs.

The committee meeting Wednesday will serve as a “housing summit” to launch the initiative. They’ll ask developers and housing advocates which policy changes could make a difference and stand a chance of passing before they introduce specific proposals.

But they’ve each pulled together a list of policy changes the city could make aimed at lowering the cost of housing. As prices have risen in recent years, it’s put an increasing strain on residents’ budgets, forcing them to spend more on housing and less on everything else, or to live farther and farther away from the city, trading grueling commutes for affordable rent.

Sherman is perhaps the Council’s most conservative member, and has argued strongly in the past against progressive priorities like increasing the minimum wage. Alvarez, meanwhile, has established himself as the Council’s most liberal voice and its most consistent and outspoken critic of the mayor’s agenda. But the two get along well and have said they’re comfortable working together.

“We have different ideologies, but we’re straight with each other,” Sherman said. “We can get things done.”

“I’m very confident that between me and Scott – I don’t think you’ll find two people who are more from opposite ends of the spectrum but want to get things done,” Alvarez said.

Sherman said he gathered feedback from local policy experts and by looking at what other, more liberal cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco have done in hopes it’d make it easier to attract Democratic support.

“There are a lot of things we all agree on,” he said. “Then there are some where there will be some tit-for-tat before we can agree. Then there are some that’ll be tough, but we’ll give it a try.”

He said he’d be a “happy camper” if the Council could take up each of his proposals over the next two years and pass the ones on which they can find consensus.

“The bottom line is we cannot continue to do what we’ve done in the past. Whatever we do has to be radically different and specifically focused on producing more housing. Period,” Alvarez said.

Sherman released a memo with 15 ideas to build more housing. They range from making it easier to build accessory units – also known as granny flats – to weakening parking requirements and reforming boards and policies that often have the effect of restricting housing, like the Historical Resources Board, community planning groups and the ability of private people to sue over state environmental law.

He also proposed a plan, reminiscent of a recent New York City initiative, that would establish a clear target for needed housing units to be built in every community that could be used to measure the city’s progress toward its goal.

Sherman said he’s already collaborated with the mayor’s office on the issue – the mayor likewise began 2017 with a push on housing – but said he’s prepared to go in a separate direction too.

“Sometimes they won’t want in on what we’re doing,” he said. “Sometimes the mayor and I agree, and sometimes we don’t. That doesn’t mean we can’t get along and smoke a cigar.”

He expects his proposal to reform community planning groups – requiring additional training of members and making sure their boards reflect the demographics of a given community – will be the most controversial.

“It’ll help with professional NIMBYism,” he said. “You can have more success proposing new development if you get out ahead of it and give the community more time to digest it.”

Alvarez released his own list of proposals. It hit some of the same notes – like lowering parking minimums, making it easier to build granny flats, creating a target for new housing production and streamlining the city’s administrative processes.

But he also calls for more direct interventions, like directing the city to review property it owns to see what could be turned into low-income housing, and retrofitting the old central library into a homeless shelter.

He also said it’s time for the city to revisit a new community plan for Barrio Logan, which the City Council approved in fall 2013 but was rejected by voters after the shipbuilding industry forced a citywide vote, with Faulconer’s support.

“We should be looking at anything and everything we haven’t done that will help us produce more housing,” Alvarez said. “Community plans aren’t enough. Those are important but it is not a solution to our housing crisis.”

Updating community plans to make way for more growth has been Faulconer’s primary housing-related policy focus – though the plans he’s put forward haven’t always increased the number of homes that can be built in an area.

As the next set of community plans move forward in places like Mission Valley, Kearny Mesa and Clairemont, Alvarez also said it’s important to make sure they make good on the promise of increasing development opportunities.

“It takes political leadership to go out and do that, and not immediately kill it when there’s a reaction to an upzoning proposal,” he said.

Other Council members submitted memos ahead of the housing summit too, including Councilman Chris Ward, who isn’t on the committee.

Ward’s memo stressed making more land available for low-income housing. He’d do that by making underutilized public property available for new development – not just the city’s, but land owned by MTS and the school district, too. Plus, he said the city could force property owners to convert nuisance properties like run-down motels into single-room occupancy housing units or new housing by more harshly enforcing code compliance violations.

“We aren’t enforcing rules strong enough to provide a stick that forces property owners to relinquish properties where they’re just running out the lifespan of the property,” Ward said.

He echoes many of Sherman and Alvarez’s points, but also offers his own ideas. Among them is to simply adopt the 11 steps already offered by the San Diego Housing Commission’s report “Addressing the Housing Affordability Crisis in San Diego.”

Ward also suggests reverting money the city is receiving from the state as part of the dissolution of redevelopment into building low-income housing. It’s an idea Alvarez pushed last year but never gained much steam.

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