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A Plan to Build 15,000 Homes Over the Next Five Years

San Diego leaders often point to city and regional plans to build more housing. In practice, we know the gap between what is needed and what is actually being built is in fact widening.

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 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.

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