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A Triple-Threat Approach to Solving SD's Housing Crisis

Our state of emergency results from the simple fact that it costs more to produce housing than many families can afford. Let’s change that.

Earlier this week, the City Council declared a continued state of emergency due to the lack of affordable housing in San Diego.

fix san diego opinion“Continued.” Somehow, despite the urgency of the situation, we are no closer to solving that shortage.

Housing advocates and business representatives have each invested a lot of money and rhetoric to bring us to Tuesday’s impasse over the now-rescinded increase to the affordable housing fee.

The good news is that, once again, all of the stakeholders have said they’re committed to working together to resolve the issue. San Diego, let’s hold them to their word this time.

Here’s what needs to happen.

The cost of producing housing has to come down.

Affordable housing advocates are missing an opportunity to create a coalition with market-rate housing providers to bring down the high cost of production. Cost reductions are key to providing both rental and homeownership options to hardworking San Diegans.

Many have suggested measures like reducing parking requirements, fee deferrals and improving the approval process. These are all important.

We can’t overlook the issue of land availability, though. We can’t keep building 3,000 homes at a time; we don’t have the land.

Instead, let’s focus on building high-quality housing in installments of 30 homes at a time. To do this, we’ll need solid community plans that clearly say what can be built, where and with conditions that preserve and enhance the community without killing economic feasibility. To date, it has taken over four years to get even a single plan completed, and now that plan is subject to a referendum. San Diego, we’ve got to reform this process.

Subsidies must increase to close the gap between the cost of housing production and a family’s ability to pay.

The business community doesn’t seem to understand a portion of the population will always need help offsetting housing costs.

Federal tax credits are available to developers to produce housing for people earning less than 60 percent of the county’s median income (a couple earning less than $37,920 per year or a family of four earning less than $47,340 per year).

Housing is generally considered affordable when a family spends no more than a third of its income for housing-related costs. One third of this income level would mean that the couple could pay approximately $1,050 per month in housing costs (rent and utilities), and a family of four approximately $1,300.

A search of recently completed buildings yielded one-bedroom apartments with an asking price around $1,800, two-bedrooms for $2,300. Regulatory relief alone can’t bring the cost of production down enough to reduce that gap. Something as radical as eliminating all city fees would still mean the two-bedroom rent on a new apartment would be affordable to fewer than half of the couples in San Diego County.

These families need some source of local public money.

Families’ earning power must increase.

Are we really OK with the fact that a couple working full-time at minimum wage jobs can only afford a rent of approximately $888, a full $500 below the average countywide rent for an apartment? Can we honestly teach our kids the importance of a strong work ethic when a full day’s work can’t even pay the rent?

Creating a skilled workforce through affordable education options is an element too often missing from our housing debates. We need to attract high-quality jobs to the region.

Our workers (and their employers) want affordable housing that’s close to their jobs, and an efficient transportation system to get between the two. When most of our skilled job opportunities exist north of the city and affordable housing options are primarily in the south, we hinder economic mobility.

We must also remember that San Diego’s tourism economy will still need workers to serve our craft beers and make the beds for our hotel guests. Minimum wage increases are an affordable housing issue.

Our state of emergency results from the simple fact that it costs more to produce housing than many families can afford.

This is not beyond our reach. Let’s keep pushing those in charge to pursue these strategies, and pull the city out of this crisis.

David Gatzke is vice president of acquisitions at Community HousingWorks. Gatzke’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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