We’ve got Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s plan to address housing problems in San Diego. The big takeaway? The mayor wants more houses.

He says more homes will stabilize housing prices “so the average San Diegan can afford to buy a home.” This is a basic point about supply and demand.

But how does Faulconer want to increase supply? Mostly, the policies come in two flavors: adding funding to existing efforts to make them more effective, and the ever-popular streamlining of regulations, restrictions and processes to reduce costs. (The word “streamline” appears 20 times in the mayor’s policy blueprint.)

All told, the plan offers ideas that aren’t dramatic or revelatory changes in direction from what the city is already doing. They’re also are unlikely to elicit much fight from the Democrat-controlled City Council or other would-be opposition. Here are the main things the mayor wants to do.

More, and Smaller, Development Blueprints

Faulconer’s budget moved some money around so the planning department would have more resources in its ongoing effort to update old blueprints for development around the city, known as community plans.

The thinking goes that out-of-date plans don’t reflect current conditions for things like traffic or neighborhood desirability, so developers often feel the need to pursue projects that aren’t consistent with existing restrictions. Development policies require that builders seek special exemptions that require things like environmental review, all of which increase costs on the developer and hurt the neighborhood more than if it had a comprehensive growth plan.

The mayor’s new policy blueprint went further: identify smaller pieces within communities, and just update the growth plans in those smaller areas.

“Rather than doing a comprehensive community plan update, we’re finding more and more that the community is mostly built out, so a comprehensive update might not be needed, so we can update only the areas that are likely to see lot of change,” said Planning Director Bill Fulton during a Council committee hearing in November.

The city recently unveiled the early stages of a micro-plan amendment just like that, covering parts of Clairemont and Linda Vista along the Morena Boulevard corridor. Then neighbors organized against it and a City Council candidate turned it into a campaign issue.

When all that happened, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, Fulton and Faulconer all stood down – at least temporarily – on the plan’s suggestion to raise the height limit at one property near Clairemont Drive.

The city will soon finalize a similar plan in Grantville. It’s discussed letting Civic San Diego, which currently oversees development downtown, implement other small plans near Encanto and in City Heights.

The main way this sort of update decreases the costs of development – and therefore hopes to address Faulconer’s goal of increasing housing supply – is by conducting a single, overarching environmental review for the area it covers. Then developers can build up projects to whatever level is covered by the environmental review, and don’t need to pay to do one of their own.

More Transit-Friendly Building, Less Parking

There’s no shortage of city leaders – young, old, Republican, Democrat, white or minority – calling for new development near areas close to the urban core. New homes would go in already-established neighborhoods that are close to transit options so new residents wouldn’t need to rely on a car.

The mayor’s policy blueprint joins the city’s general plan – its long-term plan for new growth – in establishing this as a priority. This is easier said than done, as the Morena Boulevard kerfuffle showed.

But Faulconer’s plan advocates for actual policy changes that could help make it happen. It says the city should reduce parking requirements for homes built near transit, to reduce the cost of housing. The city in recent years did just that for subsidized housing, though only after proving residents of subsidized housing had lower rates of car ownership than other residents.

Lower parking requirements will decrease the cost of housing and lead to more building, the plan says.

The plan also says the city could implement a fee that developers could pay instead of building the amount of parking currently required by development guidelines. “The fee could be used to support community parking solutions,” the report says. For instance, instead of individual developers building on-site parking based on however many units they’re adding, they’d pay a fee to the city. The city could then take all the fees paid by developers in that area and build a single parking garage.

This approach could make any specific project less attractive to the people who live near it. Effects on parking and traffic are the two most frequently cited issues neighbors have with new projects. Local opposition is likely to see off-site parking as an invitation for new residents to just take up nearby street parking instead.

Streamline, Streamline, Streamline

If there’s one thing developers agree on, it’s that it isn’t fun to get a project approved by the city’s development services department.

It takes too long, developers say. But more than that, it’s just too unpredictable.

So, to “maintain consistency and create certainty” for developers, the plan says Faulconer should create a policy that attaches a single project manager to every project to help the applicant navigate the approval process. This is one of the plan’s ideas for streamlining the process of taking a project from a concept to an actual building.

Kris Michell, CEO of the Downtown Partnership and chair of the subcommittee that put the housing plan together, said this is one of the best ways the city could spur economic development.

“We need to create certainty in the process,” she said. “Not certainty in the outcome, but in the process.”

The plan also calls for replacing the city’s internal tracking system for all permits and beginning to accept plans submitted online, among other things, to get more projects approved more quickly and eventually make more developers interested in building things here.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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