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One of the worst solutions to San Diego’s housing problems is having workers live in bordering counties or country. For some time we have observed significant numbers of San Diegans moving to southern Riverside County for affordable housing. Others also live in Mexico and now even Imperial County and commute back in to San Diego to work. With home prices now rising dramatically in Riverside County and paying $3 a gallon gasoline, the cost advantage for living so far away from work has diminished considerably in recent years.

This hurts our community in so many ways. It is environmentally unsustainable to use that much energy to have workers drive 100+ miles or idle at border crossings for 2 hours so they can have both a good job and afford a home. It is also socially destructive to have key people in our community — firefighters, teachers, police officers — leave work and be forced to sit on freeways for two hours rather than living close by where they take part in their everyday lives. And it is unreasonable to have a sense of “I have mine, let the rest eat cake” when it comes to thinking about how to create long term solutions to our housing crisis.

San Diego must permit a variety of affordable homes to be available for the local workforce. Since the region has largely pinned its economic fortunes on entrepreneurs, especially in high-value added technology industries, that create jobs and wealth, we must foster an environment for these businesses to grow and expand their workforce. Yet most local city councils make little effort toward creating positive environments for economic growth. What is good for the long-term bottom line of the community should also be positive for the city’s short-term economic good. Incentives to build affordable homes need to be made available, and more cities need to recognize the fiscal connection between increasing the supply of affordable homes and increased tax revenues that accompany it.

Working families look to the marketplace for solutions to the housing affordability crisis, but the market cannot perform without assistance from local governments. Without enough adequately zoned land, the solution will always be out of reach. Local governments should start by reducing some of the barriers that prevent the private market from increasing the supply. Plus, government itself is an inefficient builder of housing.

The market should allow builders to build more and faster supply on “spec” rather than only on contract. This allows developers to react to the variances of the market and for competitive bidding on homes.

Individually, we need to switch consumer acceptance toward more dense development, not just attached condominiums, but zero-lot line homes. To accommodate this type of housing, governments need to create more public space in neighborhoods, including plazas, pocket parks, and small gathering spots, so residents of higher density housing have places to go outside and enjoy San Diego’s extraordinary outdoors.

Businesses can also help … take one innovative solution. When initially established the University of California at Irvine was particularly worried about recruiting and retaining faculty in the extremely high cost area of southern Orange County. To deal with their problem, they created several hundred university owned homes which are sold to faculty but in which equity gains are shared between the university and the faculty member. (See Irvine Campus Housing Authority) The result is that the university has had a long term supply to meet SOME of their needs. More employers could explore that option and it would do important and positive things for our region.

City councils and boards of supervisors should zone for all types of homes, including apartments, condos and small, for-sale homes. This allows regular-wage earners (retail and service workers, teachers, government employees, police officers and firefighters) to live near their jobs and be part of the local community. It allows employers to find and retain skilled workers, and not suffer the losses of exhaustion inevitably caused by long commutes. By zoning for all types of homes, local governments allow the private market to create everything from one-bedroom apartments for college grads to single-family homes that accommodate growing families.

— KELLY CUNNINGHAM

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