Want the news summarized?
Subscribe to The Morning Report.

I got some strong feedback from yesterday’s defense of Andrew Keatts’ look into density restrictions and the 40th anniversary of the 30-foot height limit along the coast.

In it, I said that government solutions were only a “drop in the bucket” of the local housing supply and therefore unlikely to move the market in favor of affordability.

Restrictions on density and development curb housing supply and therefore buoy the cost of property and, thus, housing.

I knew that’d get some response — and it did. Here’s Lucas O’Connor, communications strategist for the Labor Council:

There are many paths to “affordable” — generally overlapping. While supply and density is relevant, it seems unproductive to treat degrees of supply-side, trickle-down market saturation as the best way or something close to the only way. It doesn’t mean that you’re shilling for developers, but it does suggest that you’re (probably subconsciously) accepting their premise even before grappling with the issue.

I’ll go ahead and say I’m consciously accepting the premise that supply and demand is determining the price of property and that that’s having a major effect on housing affordability.

If someone evil also holds this view, I guess I’ll have to deal with the consequences of agreeing with them.

As I have reviewed previously, those who manage to secure a subsidized apartment are very fortunate. The number of people being served by subsidized city efforts is rather tiny. I’m hard-pressed to imagine how these efforts can expand so much that they impact the market of very low-income residents, let alone the entire market.

Frankly, the whole market needs to be influenced. If high earners spend less on housing there’s more to spur the rest of the economy, to help them improve their quality of life and to encourage investment and entrepreneurship in sectors apart from housing.

When the city put together the housing element of its general plan, its researchers identified five impediments to affordable housing in San Diego:

• Land costs.

• Infrastructure deficiencies in older urbanized communities.

• Permit processing and development review procedures.

• Construction defect litigation.

• Community opposition to higher-density and affordable housing developments.

All of these are about housing supply or adding to housing supply.

Here’s how Matt Yglesias describes it in his book, “The Rent Is Too Damn High”:

Suppose we not only want everyone to afford a “place to live” but specifically a place in a safe neighborhood with decent public schools within a reasonable commuting distance of the central business district of an economically vibrant metropolitan area … That is, by today’s standards, a nearly utopian vision. Yet technologically speaking, it is almost within our grasp. The actual cost of building homes is hardly trivial, but it’s not too much for the vast majority of American families to be able to afford one. The scarce factor is land and permission to build on land. … progressives must see that scarcity is the enemy of equality.

Murtaza Baxamusa, a maven of affordable housing issues also from labor, explained land costs like this on our site:

In a land-constrained area like San Diego, the high value of land is one of the largest components of home prices. In 2004, land value accounted for 81 percent of the market value of a home in San Diego compared to 50 percent of the market value of a home nationally. In other words, housing is not affordable because land prices keep rising. Land prices rise because supply is fixed (our city is cradled within beautiful canyons, deserts, beaches and mountains), yet demand keeps growing (population and jobs).

As Baxamusa wrote, the need for housing is greater than ever.

Seems he is accepting developers’ premise about supply and demand as well. As he points out, the city will need 88,000 units by 2020. Even if that projection is 150 percent too high, it’s still a significant challenge.

If there’s even one irrational restriction on density, or one stupid bureaucratic impediment to building, it’s one too many.

Baxamusa proposes some quid pro quos for allowing developers to build more. I don’t think they have to be ignored.

Supply of homes isn’t the only way to address affordability, but it’s more than just a “relevant” discussion.

Community opposition to higher density developments is a given and it’s far more risky to address it than to just go along with it or even stoke its flame.

There is a flame. Developers have baited and switched this community over and over again, simultaneously managing to secure public property for their own use while using political games — or worse — to get unpopular projects through a grimy system. Then they wonder why they have so little public trust when the city lines up for a big collective effort.

Don Wood, the commenter who thought we were on a “jihad” against the height limit, added this on my post:

Sometimes it seems that VOSD reporters are more interested in stirring up controversy than they are in reporting the news. “Let’s you and him fight” journalism. Throwing out unsupported assertions claiming that coastal height limits are the cause of suburban sprawl, when the simple economics of zoning bribery causes it. If we repealed Prop D tomorrow, McMillan and Baldwin would continue building sprawl subdivsions on Otay Mesa and north county, since its [sic] the land upzones that are making them richer. Please, let VOSD focus on reporting the real news instead of manufacturing “news” and controversy where there is none.

I think we highlighted another person’s comment that height limits and building restrictions in urban areas cause sprawl. It’s not something we took a huge stand on. And nobody’s proposing that we repeal the height limit.

That’s not “manufacturing news.” The housing affordability crisis and its effect on the economy is a perpetual story.

Across the city, if the economy continues to improve and population swells, we’re going to see fight after fight of dense development proposals pitted against a community that doesn’t want them. The proposals will need City Council support, because they’re often going to be vastly different than projects imagined by decades-old community plans.

And while our streets, sidewalks, parks and other infrastructure deteriorate, these are going to be awful debates.

Let’s do better.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

Like VOSD on Facebook.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.