The downtown waterfront / Photo by Sam Hodgson

As city officials continue to look for and improve ways to induce more construction of housing, whether it’s regulatory relief or incentives like density bonus programs, one thing is always true — there’s no shortage of housing construction for very expensive homes. This is true whether one is looking for a new condo to buy, or an apartment to rent.

In recent years, downtown San Diego has become an epicenter of a lot of that new construction at the high end of the market. But there’s a big problem: We need people to start living in those new apartments. The Navy’s presence provides for a mutually beneficial solution.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

Naval Base San Diego is one of the region’s largest and most concentrated job centers. Approximately 26,000 people go to work there every day, and while some of those sailors live on the ships homeported in our bay, and roughly 4,000 live in the barracks, most live about town in military housing or the general housing market.

As U.S. foreign policy continues to pivot to the Asian and Pacific areas, that number of sailors will grow by thousands more — all while the city, the broader region, and the Navy itself tries to figure out where they’ll live.

At the same time, the city needs to alleviate and mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions to comply with the Climate Action Plan. A lot of the discussion centers on expediting public transit projects so that people in further flung areas of the region, where housing is less expensive, can travel to their jobs quicker and cleaner than sitting in their cars, stuck in traffic during rush hour on the freeways.

Those projects are critical, but the discussion is leaving an important component on the table: inducing people to live closer to their jobs. The naval base at 32nd Street is just down the road from downtown, and we should make the most of it.

As of April, MarketPointe Realty Advisors estimated that a glut of luxury rentals in downtown could account for as much as a full percentage point of San Diego’s approximately 4 percent rental vacancy rate. That figure came before the opening of at least two more luxury towers in East Village, and at least three more are opening in the near future, including the largest project to date, Ballpark Village.

But a statistical analysis of downtown residency is not necessary to know that plenty of housing units go unoccupied. Just look up at the towers that even years after opening, have half of their lights off in the evening. That’s not because folks are out at local restaurants, it’s because they’re sitting empty. They are simply too expensive.

That’s wasted space and squandered economic activity. East Village, for example, often has the feel of a ghost town. Nearly every building features ground-level commercial and retail space that’s empty due to a lack of residents to support local businesses. But San Diego’s citywide rental vacancy rate tells us that there’s more than enough people in need of housing, they’re just not moving to where the supply is high. The city needs to incentivize them to do so with the same enthusiasm it incentivizes builders to try and reach middle-income production.

Military service members receive a monthly housing stipend called Basic Allowance for Housing. It’s a set amount based on rank. And while most would consider it generous, the prices of downtown apartments often outpace the allowance for all but the highest-ranking service members.

To bridge the gap between those rates and the market, the city should mandate that landlords cannot refuse to lease to active duty service members so long as their allowance covers a certain threshold of the market listing — say 85 percent. A $2,000 per month unit becomes $1,700. A $3,000 per month unit becomes $2,550, and so on.

The scope of an ordinance like this should be limited specifically for service members on active orders to commands at Naval Base San Diego, downtown or Point Loma. And because the Navy has already demonstrated itself a reliable leader on climate action, San Diego should ask them to establish their own rules encouraging service members to choose downtown as a first option when seeking housing.

In moving service members to downtown, the city would open up rental units in other neighborhoods that don’t command the same premium prices as the newest luxury units downtown, putting thousands of more affordable units back in supply for the market.

In total, we could achieve less wasted real estate, shorter work commutes, a more lively and vibrant downtown environment, affordability relief and maximized space for our growing population. It wouldn’t solve our housing and climate challenges, but the situation we currently face needs all hands on deck with solutions.

Andy Kopp is an Easy Village resident and member of the Truman National Security Project, which advocates for veterans in public policy.

Andy Kopp is an Easy Village resident and member of the Truman National Security Project, which advocates for veterans in public policy.

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