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The Lesson of 2016: No One Wants New Housing – Anywhere

The rejection of Measure T in Encinitas and Measure B countywide sent a message that many county residents simply aren’t open to new development – whether it happens in established metro areas, or in rural spaces.

The failure of two measures in November tells us a lot about why the county isn’t making headway in dealing with the region’s housing crisis.

The rejection of Measure T in Encinitas and Measure B countywide sent a message that many county residents simply aren’t open to new development – whether it happens in established metro areas, or in rural spaces. The fact that the proposals even went to the ballot drives home the paralysis elected officials face when it comes to building more housing.

“Developers always lose, and the reason they lose is because people don’t like change,” said Gary London, president of The London Group Realty Advisors. “It’s embedded in our DNA. What I find most troubling was the fact that our policymakers punt. That’s the ultimate indictment here. It’s the failure of elected officials, whether it’s the Encinitas City Council, whether it’s the Board of Supervisors. Whenever these kinds of issues end up on the ballot, they haven’t done their job.”

Measure T represented one way to deal with the state’s housing problems – build where there’s already development. The measure would have implemented a plan required by the state, called a housing element, allowing for more density in certain parts of the city. A housing element opens the door for more affordable housing to be built, since more affordable homes generally need to be built at higher densities to finance the lower costs of each unit.

Roughly 56 percent of Encinitans rejected that plan, even with the threat of lawsuits and the loss of local land use control being held over them.

Measure B represented another potential answer to how to build more housing. The developers of the Lilac Hills Ranch project wanted permission to build 1,746 homes where current zoning only allows 110. The development was proposed for a rural area near Valley Center in the northeastern part of the county.

But county residents didn’t want development where there’s no development either. Lilac Hills Ranch only received about 36.5 percent of the vote, despite outspending its opposition by millions of dollars.

Developments like Lilac Hills Ranch would allow for a much higher number of homes at lower densities than if they were built in urban or suburban areas. But they’re controversial because of environmental concerns and a lack of infrastructure to support an influx of new residents.

The takeaway: Many county residents don’t want new development near them, but they also don’t want it where there aren’t many people either.

Mary Lydon, the former executive director of the local Urban Land Institute chapter, and project consultant for a new coalition called Housing You Matters that plans to advocate for regional housing solutions, has a more nuanced view on the failures of the two measures.

“What it does show is that we need to keep talking about where housing makes sense to go,” Lydon said.

Lydon also pointed to the failure of Measure A, the tax measure proposed by the San Diego Regional Association of Governments that would’ve funded transportation and infrastructure initiatives.

“It didn’t work, so we need to go back to the drawing board and find something that we all agree on, and couple that with the land use plans that each city has,” she said. “I think we need to continue to have a regional conversation about where growth should occur and cities need to put forth their best effort to make sure growth occurs.”

There are several reasons why land-use ballot measures often fail. One is that it takes more work to get people to vote “yes” instead of “no” for any measure on a ballot, especially if they don’t know much about it.

The second is that most voters tend to be property owners, said London, which means they might not feel the tight housing market as negatively as renters or people looking to buy.

The proponents of Measure B campaigned on the region’s housing crisis, trying to sell their project as a solution – a message that clearly didn’t resonate with voters.

When housing supply is lower than demand, renters and people in the market to buy homes feel it the most because their costs will go up. Homeowners benefit from the scarcity – their home values increase.

London and Lydon said that is why people trying to push more housing are increasingly trying to tie their messages to other concerns – like the economy and the environment.

London said he tried to work the economic angle in a July report.

“The housing industry and development industry haven’t been able to get the message across that there is a housing crisis,” he said. “So we linked it to an economic crisis: jobs.”

Lydon said her new group is trying to hone in on similar messages.

“Right now, we see no one is really building for the middle income,” Lydon said. “In order to keep the brain trust here and happy, those communities need to be able to buy a house.”

Lydon also pointed to state mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and how those can help promote a push for more transit-oriented development.

But Measure T and Measure B don’t just tell us about how county residents feel about building new housing. They also represent a failure of politicians to deal with the state’s housing crisis locally.

“It’s not surprising to me that people vote no,” London said. “But it’s really unfair to the electorate to ask them to participate in the litigation of these issues. That’s why we have elected representatives for us. They’re not necessarily smarter than the people, but their job is to spend time and attention in weighing the various push, pull. This is an abdication of responsibility to take on a tricky issue.”

Lydon agreed that voters shouldn’t have to bear the burden of deciding how to deal with the region’s housing problems.

“I personally think that this is the responsibility of the people that we elect to office and they should be taking this on,” she said.

Both of them see some silver lining though.

London sees hope for more housing with the election of Kristin Gaspar to the County Board of Supervisors.

Gaspar made her intentions to change the way the county does business when it comes to housing clear during her campaign. Her campaign was also buoyed by developer money, including from the Lilac Hills Ranch developer.

“I think that her election to some extent represents a sensitivity that the county needs to change the way it deals with housing – ignoring the housing crisis, fighting housing projects rather than trying to come up with housing solutions,” he said.

Lydon sees potential at the state level.

State Sen. Toni Atkins re-introduced a bill that would provide a permanent source of funding for low-income housing development. Sen. Scott Weiner of San Francisco has also introduced a bill that would hold cities accountable for actually producing the housing they say they will in their state-mandated housing plans – the very same plan that Encinitas failed to adopt in November.

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