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State Density Bonus Law Hasn't Solved the Housing Crisis, But it Is Working

Critics of density bonus use the false argument that because production under the program has failed to solve the affordability problem in its entirety, the program must not work.

I am writing in response to an opinion piece Voice of San Diego recently ran in order to set the record straight about the state’s density bonus law and explain why we need an all-in approach to address housing affordability.

From Oceanside to San Ysidro, and throughout our region and state, residents are grappling with a housing crisis.

lettertoeditorEven as this crisis has deepened, we have fewer resources to address the problem. California’s investment in affordable housing production has been reduced by more than $1.7 billion annually since 2008, a 66 percent reduction, according to a report by the nonprofit California Housing Partnership Corporation.

The report goes on to say the median rent in California has increased 24 percent since 2000, while median renter household income has declined 7 percent (adjusted for inflation) since then.

California’s density bonus law is a critically important tool to help make a dent in our housing crisis. It absolutely needs to be part of an ever-expanding toolbox of funding, incentives and programs.

Density bonus programs provide a home for the senior living on a fixed income; the nurse, teacher or law enforcement officer who would otherwise be unable to afford to live in the community they serve and the veteran working to return to civilian life after military service. It requires a developer to provide affordable homes and, to offset costs, allows the developer to build additional market-rate homes.

It’s working, and here’s why:

In the face of significantly diminished state and federal resources, the density bonus brings private capital investment to build affordable housing.

An incentive for private investment – the opportunity to build more market-rate housing – is what makes it possible for some of the homes in a new development to be rented at below-market prices.

The additional market-rate and affordable housing produced by density bonus helps the severe supply/demand imbalance that exists across our region and California.

Critics of density bonus use the false argument that because production under the program has failed to solve the affordability problem in its entirety, the program must not work. Yet, it is intended to only be one of many sources of affordable housing. In the absence of redevelopment agency funds and the depletion of voter-approved financing, we need this program.

The density bonus also is an important tool for affordable housing developers like Community HousingWorks, for example, which has to compete with market-rate builders for the very scarce commodity of appropriately-zoned land.

Every density bonus home produced has a profound impact on the lives of those who live there. These homes are a foundation for individuals and families, who otherwise would struggle to make ends meet.

As an additional bonus, our environment benefits when homes for lower-income workers are built near their jobs. They take cars off the road, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

As executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation and an advocate for homes within reach of low-income residents, I am the first to admit the density bonus is not a catch-all solution. The Housing Federation supports a wide range of policy solutions, including working with state lawmakers to replace revenue sources that helped build thousands of affordable homes throughout California prior to the dissolution of redevelopment; identifying ways to reduce the cost of building new homes and working on land-use policies that will encourage the development of affordable homes near transit.

Simply put, we need more funding to accommodate the needs of those already living in our communities; more acceptance and inclusiveness of all types of housing to preserve the diversity of our neighborhoods and thriving communities; more good programs like the density bonus that engage private capital and make our public investments in affordable housing stretch further.

Without tools like density bonus, there won’t be any affordable homes to be found.

Stephen Russell is executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation. Russell’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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