In my last blog appearance (August 25th) I left a few questions hanging.

The first one I’m getting to today is:

  • Is the proposed housing element for the city’s general plan a power grab by developers?

First, most people would ask – what the heck is a “housing element”? My scientist friends want to know whether it is some kind of new discovery for the Periodic Table of the Elements?

But no, it’s not as simple as that, after all, this is our government. They speak a different language than most people.

State law requires each city and county to adopt a “General Plan & Progress Guide” containing at least seven elements including one for housing. In other words, in regular English, an “element” is government-speak for a chapter. By the way, the other required “elements” in a general plan are: Land Use, Conservation, Circulation (Transportation), Conservation, Open Space, Seismic Safety and Noise. Other optional elements included in the update being conducted to the entire city of San Diego’s general plan are: Public Facilities, Services & Safety, Urban Design, Recreation, Economic Prosperity, and the Strategic Framework Element (a.k.a. City of Villages).

Jurisdictions can add as many elements as they feel are relevant beyond the legally required seven.

Each element sets policies and standards. How they are applied is another matter – the answer is some better than others. The housing element is the only element that jurisdictions are required to update every five years. (For more details download the two-pager: “State Housing Element Law.”

The way the system is set up, the housing element, while purporting to be the main tool for the city to address the needs of people who cannot afford housing – whether rental or for sale – never actually requires that any units be built for any lower-income categories! The state only requires that the city show they have sufficient land zoned to accommodate the state’s forecast population growth (we do). As a matter of fact, we have enough units in existing zoning to accommodate more than 100,000 more units. Some members of the public calculated this as representing as much as 20 years of sufficient supply. So, one might conclude that the affordability issue is not related simply to supply.

The draft Housing Element for 2005-2010 was heard before the Planning Commission yesterday.

Yes it’s already more than year late. The existing general plan was last partially updated in 1989 (when Bruce Henderson, Ron Roberts and Bob Filner were all on the council).

The first general plan for the city of San Diego was initially adopted by the council and ratified by the voters in 1967. It was last updated comprehensively in 1979.

In broad terms the general plan represents our city’s planning thought and effort in an attempt to identify, analyze and shape city growth in accordance with recognized community goals and aspirations.

Thirteen individuals gave public testimony. Several others submitted comments via letter or e-mail.

Here’s the sad news: first, the Community Planners Committee that consists of representatives of all the city’s local planning groups, voted 22-4 to oppose the current draft. In fact, there were only two slips submitted in favor of this draft and they were from the Chamber of Commerce and the Building Industry Association. Everyone else was a member of the community expressing concerns that the city was bowing to industry pressures to eliminate the “influence of outside groups” (other than them) and increase densities at the expense of everything else (infrastructure, parks, community character).

Hence the question: Is this housing element a give-away to the industry professionals who had the time and resources to get their input into this draft? The quick answer is no, but you wouldn’t know that by reading the way this draft was written. Nor can I recommend that any layperson really try and read this thing! While there are a lot of great statistics about the city’s housing stock, it’s very difficult to understand the context, applicability and practicality of much of it.

Fortunately, city planners arrived at the hearing requesting a continuance until Nov. 2 in order to address both the tone and some of the substance of this draft. It turns out this draft has few policy changes and the city has stated again and again they are not going to use the draft to increase densities later during community plan updates. But in this era of waning trust of City Hall, along with a history of adding bad density without necessary infrastructure, coupled with the empty city coffers, our aversion to tax increases and a current infrastructure deficit of greater than $2 billion (yes that’s more than the pension obligations) citizens are correct to be concerned and watch-dogging this process.

Builders are correct to be doing so as well, since they are consistently looked to for “free units” (and we all know that there is no such thing!). They are also correct to ask that projects be processed efficiently.

Many who submitted an “opposition slip” were absolutely concerned about addressing the housing needs of those who cannot afford the high market prices in our coastal climate. What they are correct to be cynical about is that the tone and content of the document included much language claiming that community groups were an “impediment,” as well as pushing the philosophy that by increasing the number of houses, that prices would somehow go down – or somehow deliver “more affordable” market-rate housing. This is an overly simplistic application of the premise that increasing supplies reduces prices. Yes but. And I’m certain that the owners of thousands of homes would not be supporting government policies to reduce home equities across the board, nor is it in the interest of any city to be reducing property tax revenues.

History tells, as usual, a more complex story.

The landscape shows that over the decades, the gross number of units has always gone up. Yet so have the prices. And it’s fundamental to capitalism. The market does not provide for those who cannot afford any particular item. That’s why government programs are required to help with housing for those who are not making a living wage – for whatever reason.

No matter how many permits you issue, no for-profit builders in their right minds will bring those units for sale at below-market prices. That is something that only happens to builders who get caught in the bigger up/down cycles of the financial markets and job gains or losses. It’s called taking a bath when the market turns and you don’t have enough financial staying power to ride it out.

Increasing supply without controlling the price simply means more market rate units will be built – as much as the system can stand and the cycles show that they persistently push overbuilding to the detriment of their own industry. Yet lower-income people never catch up.

I feel the role of the Planning Commission is to pursue and support good planning and good government for the overall, integrated public good. Good planning attempts to provide for the supportive public infrastructure required to support development.

Good planning also attempts to provide for healthy communities.

Good government is responsive to all users and should provide efficient processing for projects that are well planned for. So I don’t object to efforts to reduce processing costs or time.

What I do object to is doing so under the guise of making housing more affordable.

What’s difficult sometimes is to remember that we are given a very flawed regulatory regime to begin with – and I think that’s not discussed enough because we feel powerless to change it. But be that as it may, I feel that it should be noted and discussed if only to educate the public about the gross limitations we are given to work with to begin with. And also I know for a fact that when you begin to discuss things, that’s when change can also begin to happen.

CAROLYN CHASE

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