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A New Approach on Housing: Forget Density

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.

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.

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.

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