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A new academic study suggests that district elections are having another effect on city life: fewer new homes. The study points to Escondido as a prime example of the phenomenon.
District elections have been championed in progressive circles as a way to diversify school boards and local governments. When minority candidates run for office in their own communities, rather than citywide, they have an increased chance of getting elected.
Or so the thinking goes. Whether that’s actually occurred over time is debatable. Multiple press reports in recent years have analyzed the make-up of political bodies from cities that made the switch to district elections and found the results mixed.
But a new academic study suggests that district elections are having another effect on city life: fewer new homes.
Several California cities, according to researchers at CUNY and Princeton, are no longer concentrating home production exclusively in low-income neighborhoods now that those same neighborhoods have a stronger say in the political process. Instead, homes are being built in other parts of those cities. But there’s less of it overall.
In other words, elected bodies become more responsive to neighborhood opposition to new homes when politicians begin representing particular parts of town rather than the town as a whole.
The researchers used Escondido as an example. They found that before the city held its first district election in 2014, most of the projects that received home construction permits were located near downtown. Officials approved roughly 3,300 new units across Escondido between 2011 and 2013. Since then, home construction projects have mostly landed on the city’s outskirts. During the four years that followed the switch to district elections, officials approved just under 2,000 units.
The researchers also found that the type of housing approved by officials has changed in recent years. A greater percentage of the units approved after 2014 were single-family homes.
That bears repeating: as state officials and housing advocates pushed for more density, Escondido heard the warnings of an impending housing crisis and approved fewer multi-family homes.
But Escondido is an interesting choice to highlight, because the new City Council has openly acknowledged that it can’t keep constructing homes on the edge of town.
That makes sense. After all, Escondido, like most cities, is running out of available land to develop. Instead, officials have turned their attention back on downtown, with the hope of building up so that more people can be closer to their jobs and rely on a car less. Earlier this year, city officials created a program that lets developers transfer unused housing units among themselves in an effort to increase density.
Without a doubt, downtown Escondido is going to look and feel very different in the coming years, and that’s the point. Mayor Paul McNamara told the U-T editorial board last year that he’d like Grand Avenue to become “a mini Gaslamp” district.
Last week, the City Council approved a 32-unit project near the Sprinter station at Quince Street, but killed another project — totaling 131 units — across the street from City Hall, known as Aspire.
Before voting against the six-story apartment complex, McNamara and other Democrats echoed community members who said Aspire was too tall, too out of character for the historic neighborhood and didn’t provide enough parking.
A representative for the developer called the Council members’ justifications “illogical and incomprehensible,” the Coast News reported. He said the firm had brought the city exactly what it had asked for — a design that’s out of the ordinary but classy and one that could kickstart a larger trend toward transit-oriented development downtown.
Arguing in the project’s defense, Republican City Councilman Mike Morasco said residents had also lobbied against the construction of City Hall many years ago by saying it would “destroy the charm” of Escondido, but he doubts anyone feels that way anymore.
Democratic City Councilwoman Olga Diaz told us that the developer had been seeking too many fee waivers, hadn’t gotten enough buy-in from the neighboring community and hadn’t met with her to discuss her concerns until the day of the vote.
The lack of affordable housing in the project was also cited as a problem. Aspire would have set aside a mere nine affordable units out of the 131 total.
“Sometimes the projects that I see that are checking all these boxes, with density and all of that, which I think is great, aren’t necessarily affordable to the folks who live here,” said City Councilwoman Consuelo Martinez, who also voted against the project.
The California Department of Housing and Community Development has officially signed off on Encinitas’ housing plan. Cities are required every few years to provide the state with a blueprint for where new homes could be built, but Encinitas voters have rejected those plans at the ballot box.
A group of developers and renters sued, and a judge agreed late last year to suspend a local law giving residents veto power over major land use changes. The city is now in compliance with state law and will soon begin work on its next housing plan, which is due in 2021.
At a forum Tuesday in San Diego, Mayor Catherine Blakespear defended her city’s current housing plan, which has gotten significant pushback from residents, many of whom feel that their community character is under threat. Even if all the sites in the plan end up being developed, she said, the housing stock will increase by a modest amount: 6 percent.
“That is not going to change your quality of life dramatically,” she said.
She acknowledged that Encinitas will be adding more apartment complexes and more density, and stressed that the city’s push to increase affordable units, like granny flats, would be one avenue to meeting the state’s mandate.
“Having a really deep understanding of what housing law is and what it’s trying to accomplish and why it’s designed the way it is has allowed me to see housing not as a punishment but as a responsibility and also as a privilege and an opportunity.” she said. “Because when you think about the communities that you want to build, you want places for seniors to live and you want places for artists to live and you want young people to be there. That is your vibrant community.”
From Jesse: My fellow misfits and miscreants, sometimes in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one reporter to dissolve the bands that have connected him to a place and look elsewhere for good stories.
That is to say, after 13 months I’m handing the reins of the North County beat to the talented Kayla Jimenez, who’s been covering sexual misconduct in schools around the region.
It’s been real, so stay in touch. I’ll continue to cover the District 3 supervisors race but I’ll be refocusing my efforts around the San Diego metro.