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The housing crisis has become one of the most substantial regional political issues in recent memory. It is tangible to voters because home prices are high and homelessness is on the rise. But public hysteria over the matter is also being kindled by a constant drip of calamitous headlines suggesting doomsday scenarios if we cannot build more homes. And so in the public mind the problem is high home prices, the outcome is homelessness and the solution is to build.
What is missing from our public discourse on housing is specificity. A “housing crisis” would suggest a lack of inventory at all levels of the market and a “build, baby, build” solution. But do we have a general housing crisis or a more specific problem? The evidence points to the latter.
Since 2010, San Diego has built just 8.9 percent of the targeted goal set out in the Regional Housing Progress Report for very-low, low and moderate income units. For perspective, you would need an annual income of $98,150 to afford a moderate home in the county.
By contrast, we have built more than 60 percent of the regional housing goal for above-moderate units. That disparity is not new. Between 2003 and 2010, we exceeded the goal for above-moderate units by a whopping 152 percent while building 50,000 fewer lower-income units than was targeted. In other words, by a wide margin, we have been building for the top 5 percent of income earners in San Diego.
We know the housing crisis is not affecting the upper middle and top end of the market because the numbers show that as well. According to research conducted by Apartment List, which studied census data, high-income earners in San Diego actually keep 6.4 percent more of their money after paying rent today than they did 10 years ago. It is the middle-class and low-income earners who had to watch 8.6 percent of their post-rent money disappear.
This flies in the face of the pro-development economic narrative. “If you deny 2,000 high-income families the new housing they want, guess what, they are going to go down the street and outbid your cherished working-class family and take their housing units. You can’t win by not building at the high end,” Chris Thornberg, economist and founding partner of Beacon Economics, told the Union-Tribune.
This line of reasoning would make sense if there were a shortage of supply at the top of the market. But the numbers show we are over-producing high-end supply, and high-income earners’ income is outpacing the market price for housing. In other words, there is already more inventory for wealthy San Diegans than there is demand. Any suggestion that building more high-end units will relieve pressure on low-income housing costs is failing to understand the nature of this housing crisis.
Nevertheless, the County Board of Supervisors is considering bundling seven general plan amendments to approve upward of 10,000 units in the far east and north of the county. As the independent research group Grow the San Diego Way has noted, such amendments are only legally permissible if there is a compelling public interest. At numerous hearings, including one on May 11, developers and Planning Commission staff have argued that the housing crisis is just the kind of public interest that would legitimize a general plan amendment.
This should come as no surprise, but the proposed amended developments — Newland Sierra, Lilac Hills, Harmony Grove, Valiano, Otay 250 and others — would be inventory almost exclusively in the above-moderate range.
Specificity is important. A housing crisis at all levels of the market might warrant making radical changes to our general plan. But it is dubious to claim that building sprawling developments 50 miles from the city center, which will sell for upward of half a million dollars, will offer any tangible relief to low-income homebuyers and renters.
There is a housing crisis in San Diego, but it is not the one that is being ingrained in our public consciousness. It is not a crisis in general; it is a crisis at the bottom. The problem is that homes are not being built for select socioeconomic groups and that needs to change.
Many of the world’s greatest cities — Vancouver, Singapore, Hong Kong, New York — cannot sprawl due to geographic restraints. Instead, they have turned density into a great advantage. We can learn from urban planners around the world how to better manage offsets, what kind of density works and how to build neighborhoods for a mixture of residents from different socioeconomic classes. There are answers to our population growing pains and ways to do density well. During a crisis, the most important thing to do is not lose your head. San Diego is very much at risk of sprawling its way into an undesirable mega city if we allow hysteria to override our better judgment.
To be sure, this will require visionary leaders, builders that are invested in designing a 21st century region and a shift in our local culture’s understanding of city living. But that is the way forward for San Diego, and those using this crisis to advance other interests are taking advantage of this crisis, not solving it.
Russell A. York, a resident of Point Loma, is a native San Diegan working with tech startups around the world. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.