If an upstart progressive coalition gets its way, San Diegans will be voting in 2018 on a plan to raise taxes to fund homes for low-income residents.
The group, Build Better San Diego , is composed of labor unions, environmentalists and community organizing groups.
Late last month, the coalition packed City Council chambers to oppose Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plan to hold a November special election to raise hotel taxes to expand the convention center and raise some money for homelessness and infrastructure.
Now, it’s eyeing a housing-focused tax measure that could end up sharing the ballot with Faulconer’s convention center expansion plan if it gets pushed to the 2018 election.
“We’re not going to build housing without money,” said Ramla Sahid, executive director of Partnership of the Advancement of New Americans, a refugee advocacy group that’s part of the coalition.
“Revenue needs to be prioritized,” said Emily Serafy Cox, a community organizer working with the group. “That’s a real policy.”
The group has emerged alongside a newly energized and aggressive political left , led by emboldened labor leaders threatening not just the mayor’s Convention Center plan, but also a private bid to redevelop Qualcomm Stadium into a new urban neighborhood built around an MLS soccer stadium.
Build Better San Diego is closely aligned with the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, and three unions are in both groups. In a letter  last month, the Labor Council said it wouldn’t support Faulconer’s Convention Center plan, and listed a series of requirements for it to reconsider its support.
The letter called for union hiring goals to build the expansion and anything else over $1 million paid for with the measure’s new revenue, and to operate the center once it was built. But it also called for the mayor to put another measure on the ballot similar to Los Angeles’ 2016 Measure JJJ that would require private developers whose projects require zoning changes or community plan amendments to comply with labor hiring standards and additional requirements for low-income housing.
Los Angeles also separately passed revenue increases to fund subsidized housing and homelessness solutions.
Representatives from Build Better San Diego said in an interview that they’re encouraged the Labor Council called for a subsidized housing-focused measure, but are also pushing for a straight tax increase on the 2018 ballot dedicated to building more subsidized housing.
For now, they aren’t wed to a particular revenue source; they’re open to hotel taxes, which may be an easier political lift, but have explored sales taxes, property taxes or real estate transfer taxes, too.
More important than those details, they said, is the acknowledgment that low-income San Diegans need many more homes with explicit rent restrictions.
Finding a way to build more of those homes is the way to solve a housing crisis that the city has done little to combat for over a decade, said Murtaza Baxamusa, director of planning and development at the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation, a low-income housing arm of the local construction workers union.
“It’s great to talk about housing supply for developers,” he said. “We want to see housing for the lowest end of the market. That implies public subsidy. We need public dollars. That means revenue.”
The group is pushing to get a measure on the 2018 ballot. They’re meeting with Council offices and said they met with Faulconer, too, and were encouraged that he left open the possibility that he’d support a measure for new revenue dedicated to housing.
The group might not be alone in its push for a housing-focused tax increase on the 2018 ballot.
Mike McConnell, a homelessness advocate, hired a polling firm to gauge support for a 2 percent hotel tax increase to be spent entirely on low-income housing, permanent supportive housing, shelter and services for homeless people.
He expects to release the results this week to any advocate who wants to use them.
But Build Better San Diego says it’s looking to create something that will last beyond 2018, however its ballot push goes.
Last summer, representatives from the various groups involved – including the local hotel workers union, the tax union, the Climate Action Campaign, Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and the organizing group ACCE Action – started meeting with their members and asking them about the most important issue they faced.
They did over 50 meetings and interviewed over 610 people, Sahid said.
Housing costs were far and away their members’ most significant issue, she said.
“The era of a San Diego where only a few men control the agenda needs to come to an end,” she said. “We want people to lead dignified lives.”
“We have a mandate from our membership to act,” Baxamusa said. “We came to this party because there wasn’t a party going on – the No. 1 issue for our constituents is housing, housing, housing.”
By emphasizing new revenue to build more low-income homes, the coalition contrasts with another nascent housing policy voice in San Diego. As in other cities, San Diego has a small but vocal “YIMBY” movement – or “Yes in My Backyard,” an answer to so-called NIMBY opposition to new development.
Rather than emphasizing government-subsidized housing, those advocates have instead pushed for policies that make it cheaper and easier for private developers to build more homes.
Their call to increase housing supply, suppress prices over time and build a denser and more environmentally friendly city has gained steam this year. Conservative Councilman Scott Sherman and his liberal counterpart Councilman David Alvarez have teamed up to deregulate the city’s development processes and increase housing supply . (Alvarez still supports subsidized housing programs and thinks they should be expanded, but he’s been happy to find common ground with Sherman on supply-side solutions.)
Likewise, Build Better San Diego isn’t the only broad-based housing coalition in town. Housing You Matters has entered the discussion too – it’s a coalition of developers, business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Building Industry Association, and centrist advocacy groups like the Endangered Habitats League and Circulate San Diego. (The Climate Action Campaign and LaCava Consulting are in both groups.)
“Our coalition is different because we come with voters,” Sahid said. “Our base-building strategies translate into turnout on Election Day. It’s time for City Hall to reconsider how it prioritizes things, because we will be showing up – both at the polls, and at how it was created.”
Build Better San Diego members say they aren’t necessarily opposed to regulatory changes that make it easier to densify housing in the city, but they aren’t necessarily supportive, either. They say they support dense projects that provide adequate low-income housing – and provide amenities like parks and transit options – but could oppose measures that increase density but fall short in other ways. Increasing housing supply isn’t a goal in and of itself.
“We aren’t necessarily NIMBYs or YIMBYs,” Serafy Cox said. “You have to be smart at how you’re doing it. It’s not that all housing is good, because all housing could then cost $2,500 a month.”
Sahid said building new homes with local workers hired through project labor agreements is a fundamental piece of their proposal.
“You can’t fix the issue by doing the same thing you tried to do before,” she said. “Capitalism says if you give businesspeople the opportunity to design something, they’ll figure out how to make the most money. You need someone to focus on the real needs of people in the community.”