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Let’s really talk about housing.
Last week, Will Carless set off a firestorm with his investigation into the costs of affordable housing projects in San Diego. But our city’s fundamental challenge with all sorts of redevelopment isn’t cost; it’s our pathological resistance to its complexity. Carless doubled-down on that resistance, relying on statistics to avoid those challenges. Instead, we should seize an opportunity to call San Diego back to the drawing board and finally face that complexity.
Measuring the impact — and thus return on investment — of any redevelopment project is incredibly complex and far from an exact science. That Carless chose to give this only the barest acknowledgement belies the root problem that San Diego has with all development: No established standard for success. Whether we’re discussing affordable housing, a Convention Center expansion, or renovations to Balboa Park, not only is there no definable project “success,” but there’s no good mechanism for comparing various options against each other.
Because we struggle to quantify success, we too often end up with the projects that have the political support to be barely justified instead of the projects of the highest merit. Rather than a clearly defined set of measurable goals for affordable housing or any other development project, we have developers and philanthropists submit the projects they’d like to build and the city chooses yes or no.
Instead of delving into this issue though, Carless compares in isolation the per-unit or per-square foot costs of for-profit and affordable housing projects. Comparing the two, though, makes as much sense as trying to gauge the relative worth of your point guard and center based only on rebounds — it’s simply not the whole picture. We learn nothing per se about the value received for those dollars because the projects have fundamentally different purposes, and affordable housing faces a stacked deck and wider goals that Carless does not attempt to measure.
Affordable housing projects and redevelopment in general are specifically designed to spur construction that is more expensive than private markets find attractive, and making an arbitrary distinction of how much more is too much more doesn’t help anything. Rather than evaluate affordable housing projects in a vacuum, we must consider affordable housing as part of a comprehensive effort to not simply shelter, but be part of a comprehensive effort to ensure San Diegans the ability to live here.
Redevelopment exists to ensure that all the resources we need to live and work in San Diego are available and keep our economy moving. Affordable housing benchmarks are not distinct from that goal, nor should they be measured in isolation. The same people who need affordable housing also need access to walkable communities and public transit. Safe spaces for their kids and internet access. Even architecture that helps break the stigma of poverty.
If these questions aren’t rolled into the affordable housing debate, do we really imagine our redevelopment agencies will raise them in discussion of stadiums or convention centers? CCDC’s incoming chairman recently described funds for affordable housing “diverted” from redevelopment. In the current system, building cheaper units is much more likely to mean extra funding for sexy one-off projects like stadiums or convention space. That’s where the money and the glamour are, and that’s why it’s so important to include community development priorities with affordable housing projects.
It’s also why the notion that it’s high costs that hold back more affordable housing units is so naive. It’s an obvious pitch to assume cheaper affordable housing would mean more affordable housing; it’s straightforward math after all. But reality doesn’t work that way. When redevelopment corporations work out the proportion of their efforts that go to affordable housing, it’s based on 20% of funding for affordable housing and maintaining a minimum percentage of 15% of low/moderate housing stock on the market. Assuming that redevelopment corporations would be interested in exceeding these goals can only come from a total ignorance of how redevelopment has operated in San Diego for years.
Maybe we should all be shocked that local politicians hadn’t conducted the basic arithmetic of dividing cost by square footage or units developed. But maybe there’s a reason that such calculations haven’t been used to gauge the value of the projects — it wouldn’t actually tell us anything.
Isolating the number of units produced skips over the underlying goal of redevelopment: to reclaim communities. Moreover, it misses the point of affordable housing. It’s one of many tools in the toolbox to help ensure that the people who work to keep our city functioning can also afford to live here. Affording to live here though goes beyond just a roof. It includes food and clothing. It includes access to reliable transportation. It’s the means to fully participate, the opportunity to pursue happiness.
Unfortunately, the much-needed discussion about what value we as a community put on this sort of community development was entirely absent from last week’s article. Not only was it absent, but Carless presented arbitrary price points, undermined their relevance by acknowledging that “in the affordable housing game, profits are a more amorphous beast,” and then outright declined to explore the underlying challenges.
Instead of continuing to dance around the hard work of placing a community value on the many goals of redevelopment, let’s honestly discuss how all these pieces fit together and finally get down to the business of deciding what matters.
Lucas O’Connor is a political consultant and co-founder of TwoCathedrals.com. He lives in Golden Hill.