Everyone in San Diego government is talking about housing.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer made it a centerpiece of his State of the City address. Council members peppered references to it throughout their inaugural remarks. The left- and right-most Council members next week are hosting a summit to kick off a major housing push.

“I’m going to say something that mayors have traditionally been afraid to say,” Faulconer said in his State of the City address. “We need to build more housing!”

He reiterated the sentiment at a building industry gala this weekend. It’s the same philosophy that has defined Gov. Jerry Brown’s two-year push to combat the state’s high housing costs.

But as rising housing prices have crippled household budgets, pushed families into grueling commutes in exchange for more affordable homes in far-flung places and even forced people onto the streets, the city has in fact showed little urgency in fighting the problem.

The city’s official policy for years has been to accommodate population growth by building homes in dense urban villages near jobs and transit. The strategy has not yet translated into significant changes across the city.

But after one term in office, the mayor’s actions have netted little in the way of prospects for new housing, let alone provided for the kind of supply increases that might affect affordability.

Faulconer’s biggest move – updating the plans that dictate where and how much housing can be built in each community – has not always made way for new housing opportunities. His plan that lets developers build more market-rate homes than allowed by local zoning in exchange for providing low-income units, however, is being hailed as a model for other cities across the state.

Densifying Communities – or Not

Mayoral spokesman Craig Gustafson said of all the mayor’s policies on housing, updating new communities plans across the city was “a big one.”

San Diego is broken into 52 communities, each of which has a long-term plan for how much housing can be built and where it should be located.

Those plans are mostly decades old. The city started updating them before Faulconer took office, but he has emphasized finishing them.

The city has approved eight new community plans since 2014, and two other similar plans for smaller areas. In the previous decade, San Diego adopted only one new plan.

New plans increase density in an area to a level the community can live with, while also promising certain community improvements to offset the effects of new development. They also review the environmental effects of all that growth, saving developers the cost of doing it themselves and encouraging them to pursue projects.

But the final plans the city has adopted haven’t always made good on that theory.

Some plans didn’t increase housing density in the community at all. Others did so only modestly.

Last year, for instance, the city passed four new community plans. Together, they accounted for a total density increase of 4 percent.

New plans in Uptown and Golden Hill didn’t increase density at all. Both neighborhoods are next to downtown, making them ripe opportunities for to build homes close to employment opportunities and relatively frequent transit service.

North Park increased its density 7 percent, potentially allowing developers to build up to 2,000 additional homes. San Ysidro, on the other hand, took on a nearly 20 percent density increase, making way for up to 1,500 new units.

Nicole Capretz, an environmental activist with the Climate Action Campaign and who helped write San Diego’s Climate Action Plan, which strengthened the city’s commitment to urban density, said the plans were a severe letdown.

“All we did in Uptown was prevent a downzone, and it’s literally adjacent to downtown,” she said. “We made a baby step toward our urban vision but we didn’t come close to capturing what we said we would in the climate plan or even the general plan.”

Likewise, Joe LaCava, who chaired an umbrella group for community planning groups throughout most of the update process, said the final results in Uptown, Golden Hill and North Park, were disappointing.

“It was more like, we just need to get it done,” he said. “They said, basically, ‘These won’t generate controversy, so we’re done.’”

That’s especially concerning, LaCava said, because if you can’t upzone in the neighborhoods closest to downtown, why would you have more success as you move farther out?

Borre Winckel, president of San Diego’s Building Industry Association, said by the time the new plans were adopted, his group considered them a victory simply by preventing a downzone.

“We thought we had won the battle by stopping a downzone, but we wanted an upzone,” he said. “We didn’t really gain anything.”

But there wasn’t across-the-board criticism for the results of the mayor’s oft-touted community plans.

Colin Parent, policy counsel for smart-growth advocacy group Circulate San Diego and a member of the La Mesa City Council, said the community plans are about more than just density increases.

Since the plans provide an environmental study for new development, they really do make it easier for developers to build new housing, even if they don’t increase density.

“If your total density stays the same, but it’s more viable to build, then that’s positive,” he said. “It’s a modest improvement.”

The mayor’s decisions on density increases haven’t always been consistent. For instance, the city passed a new plan in largely industrial Grantville that allows up to 8,000 new units near the community’s trolley stop.

But it also backed off a proposal to increase density on the Morena Boulevard corridor that’s soon to be home to two new trolley stations. When residents learned of the planned upzone there, they organized against it, and the mayor quickly directed his staff to drop the issue.

San Diego’s Density Bonus Program

The other major accomplishment Faulconer’s office cited on housing was the city’s so-called density bonus program, which lets developers build more market-rate housing than zoning allows if they also add low-income homes.

Among those in the housing and development worlds, there is no question: San Diego adopted a great density bonus program.

The city’s program lets developers build up to 50 percent more homes if they also build some for low-income residents. It also lowered parking requirements for low-income housing projects.

“It is without question the best density bonus program in the state,” said Parent, who used to work for both the state housing department and the San Diego Housing Commission.

Winckel said cities throughout the region should emulate San Diego’s program. Other cities – especially Encinitas – have vocally opposed attempts to implement a state-mandated density bonus program. San Diego’s program goes beyond state requirements.

“The best thing the mayor has done is adopt a better density bonus program than most cities,” he said.

The mayor has not emphasized finding new money to build low-income housing.

In addition to his focus on streamlining city permitting and updating community plans, he’s also turned his attention recently to combatting the city’s growing homelessness problem.

“It’s clearly been disappointing that the limited focus has been on homelessness, and affordable housing has not gained any traction,” said Stephen Russell, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, an advocacy organization for low-income housing developers.

Russell said he supports density increases and homelessness services, “but those things do not directly affect the issue of people being forced into the streets, substandard housing or being crowded into housing.”

During his first mayoral run, Faulconer campaigned on the importance of repealing an increase on a fee charged on commercial developers to pay for low-income housing. The City Council did just that shortly after he took office, and later agreed to a much smaller fee increase in a compromise with the building industry.

“We would have been happy with a real effort to create local sources of affordable housing funding,” Russell said. “But I’m realistic in that I know how hard that is.”

Administrative Streamlining

The mayor’s office also touted measures it took to make it easier for developers to dance through the city’s complex development approval system.

It’s in the process of implementing a new internal system that tracks permit requests and approvals, for instance. That’s scheduled to go live in May.

“This will greatly streamline the permitting process by reducing dependency on internal staff, reducing paper files, faster and more accurate permitting, etc.” Gustafson said via email.

Likewise, in the fall the city simplified the structure it uses to charge fees for development permits. There were 538 different fees, but the city has now flattened that to 313 different fees.

Gustafson also noted Faulconer’s support for Measure M this fall, which was mostly an administrative change. It raised the limit on the number of subsidized homes that could be built in the city, but doesn’t provide any funding for new units or even approve any specific projects.

The city has also adopted a series of changes in its semi-regular attempts to clean up contradictions or errors in its master list of development restrictions – including one that attempted to make it easier to build on small or oddly shaped lots. Faulconer also introduced a measure that let architects skip some city review of their projects if they take a day-long training course.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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