The construction site for the Mission Cove Apartments project in Oceanside. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Local politics has long been dominated by residents who see denser and more mobile cities as an affront to their sense of community and a threat to their way of life. As a counterweight to this ingrained hostility across California, the YIMBY movement is gaining significant clout.

At risk of being priced out of cities, its members tend to be progressive and environmentally conscious. Criticized as unwitting agents of the building industry, these activists and planning professional say “yes” rather than “no” to development in their own backyard as a way of bringing down the cost of living while meeting greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Their flagship bill in the California Legislature this year, SB 50, would have allowed four- to five-story apartment buildings within a half-mile of major transit stops, effectively circumventing opposition at the local level, but it was shelved earlier this month by a Democratic senator from the Los Angeles suburbs.

Despite the bill’s demise, it’s been a pretty good year for the YIMBYs of San Diego. Now they’re eyeing North County.

Last month, San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez proposed that developers who don’t want to include affordable units in their projects pay nearly double the normal fee. Some didn’t think the policy went far enough to ensure housing for low-income residents, but they considered it a step in the right direction.

The proposal came months after Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, declared himself a YIMBY, vowing to eliminate building height limits near transit stations and slash the minimum parking requirements that help drive up the cost of construction. His State of the City speech in January signaled a willingness to push through controversial projects.

North County is a different place.

Democratic and Republican leaders alike tend to be skeptical of housing development, measuring the value of an individual project by how it’ll affect traffic. Nearly every week, the local newspapers testify to the difficulty of getting new units built.

In May, for instance, Solana Beach voters killed a proposed senior-care apartment complex that would have accommodated as many as 99 beds. The president of a neighboring HOA told the Del Mar Times, “It’s a nice idea. It’s just the wrong place.”

Housing is not the only source of ire. The California Coastal Commission’s decision to build a bicycle trail along the Coastal Rail was greeted by boos and jeers. One woman told the Coast News that she lamented the loss of the natural terrain and acknowledged that the way she used to cross the tracks was illegal.

“But we are all NIMBYs about our homes and hometown,” she said, “and people in Cardiff pay a lot to live here and to be able to walk to the beach.”

In the midst of all this stands James Contino, a 29-year-old political operative who returned to Oceanside in 2015 and found the city working hard to build new hotels — the type of growth that primarily caters to tourists. He’s helping launch a North County YIMBY club in June to try to steer the conversation toward denser housing development and transit.

I caught up with Contino and Rachel Stevens, a San Diego-based organizer for the California YIMBYs, about their efforts to build political infrastructure in North County. Both are members of the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego, but they’ve decided to make the new club non-partisan.

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

It seems like the effort to mobilize folks around housing and transit would be easier in a larger metro like San Diego. How do you account for the various city councils and agencies in North County? They’ve all got their different priorities and elected officials.

Contino: The problems can be different from city to city, even though we’re all very close to each other. But the growth that we’re seeing, like in Oceanside, is catered to more tourism, and the houses that we are seeing built are luxury apartments or almost a million dollars, houses that are 2,000-plus square feet. We’re not really seeing infill housing being built, and that is something that literally applies to all the cities in North County.

Stevens: There are a ton of groups that are politically engaged in North County and Oceanside specifically. You have Indivisible groups, you have Democratic Party groups, you have environmental groups and other allies that really should be more involved in the housing conversation, but for many reasons haven’t been. Housing is not sexy — people don’t see how housing is a human right and a social justice issue.

Contino: We do see a lot of allies, and there’s a lot of overlapping with groups that I think would like to have a voice in the conversation of housing. Environmental groups are pretty strong in North County and that has a lot to do with housing and transit.

Does that include the region’s anti-sprawl activists? Many of those folks are often arguing in favor of transit first, but you can’t lay down the transportation infrastructure until the housing is built, or at the very least, they have to be constructed side by side.

Contino: You hit it on the head — kind of like the chicken or the egg argument. Do we build the transit first and then the housing, or the housing then the transit? I think that sometimes there’s not always one specific answer, but the more voices we get in the room and the more ideas we can generate to complete the objective of building more housing, building more transit in a cohesive and smart way.

I’m curious about the dispute in Oceanside over the possible development of South Morrow Hills. Do you have any strong feelings on that project? Opponents say there’s not enough infrastructure to support the new homes being proposed on the city’s remaining agricultural lands.

Contino: We do need more housing without a doubt, so it was nice to see that they were going to build. But it wasn’t really smart growth. I can appreciate that they were making an effort and trying to build 600 or 700 homes, but at the same time, that’s not really the project that we need in Oceanside. Just recently, the Planning Commission did not give its approval and I think that that was the correct choice.

So it’s just not the right kind of housing is what you’re saying?

Contino: It’s not that it’s not the right type of housing. It’s just that there are better opportunities.

I know that some of the other YIMBY groups are firmly rooted within the Democratic Party because they want to change that conversation on the left. Why is your organization non-partisan?

Contino: We have to get as many people involved and be as inclusive as possible. I identify as a Democrat personally. But I know other people who are not, have no party identification or are Republican, but they understand that we’re in a housing crisis. I would love to have them all get in the same room and discuss the problems that we’re having in our local community and how we can fix them.

Stevens: When James and I met, we talked about how the Democrats in some of these beach communities are obviously a little different, and so we being nonpartisan was this strategic approach to yes, attract people, but to really engage more politicians. If we’re allowing people that are more on the Republican or conservative side of the spectrum to join these spaces, we hope that in creating an open and communal space, we can talk to them a little bit more.

Yeah, let’s build. But let’s also think about tenants that are already living here and protecting these vulnerable communities, because I can’t have those conversations unless you’re all at the same table in the same room.

It seems like Republicans tend to be more open to housing construction in North County. What’s your pitch to Democrats who might say, ‘Look, I’m all about ensuring that our communities are socially and economically diverse, but the city shouldn’t sacrifice its charm?’ How do you bring them on board?

Contino: That is the argument for a lot of the coastal communities. But the reality of it is, you can’t have the mindset of ‘I already got mine.’ I think that it’s just framing the conversation in a little different way, to have these elected officials realize that housing is becoming more of an issue than I think they realize. We are in a housing crisis — underline crisis, exclamation point, exclamation point. And if we let this get more out of hand, we are going to be really screwed.

And what do you also say to people on the left who complain that Scott Wiener’s bill and others would gentrify poor neighborhoods and make things worse particularly for people of color?

Stevens: I think it’s a really confusing conversation. And what we’re seeing too is gentrification and displacement being lumped together as the same thing, which is not always true.

With some of these bills that are moving through the Legislature, there’s a real need to build consensus with the tenant activist groups. They’ve been organizing around housing issues for a really long time on tenant rights, first and foremost, and rent control and rent gouging.

Tenant rights groups and YIMBYs aren’t always seeing eye to eye on this conversation. And I think it stems from the difference in how we want to approach the crisis. We all really have the same goals here. We want to house our communities, we want to preserve some existing communities, we want to protect vulnerable communities. But how we approach it is different. So the YIMBYs are looking at it like, ‘Right now we live in a society where we allow the market to provide homes for the community. The market determines the amount of homes and what’s getting built.’ And sometimes it’s tenants’ rights groups being like, ‘Why are they profiting off something that should be a human right? We should all have the right to a home and a community.’

In areas like North County and even in San Diego, where it’s a little bit sleepier and we’re newer to the housing conversation, there’s a really good opportunity for the two groups to sit down and have that conversation about where they can collaborate. Like how can they push each other to understand where their groups are coming from and ultimately move towards a solution that creates more equitable housing, more affordable housing, but also understanding that we do need more middle-income housing and we need options for all Californians.

Escondido Trying to Boost Downtown Density

SB 50 may be dead for the year, but cities that want to tackle the housing crisis remain free to rewrite their own rules governing housing construction. While most of us were watching the statehouse this month, Escondido amended its downtown land use policy to create more density around the city’s center.

The Coast News reported that the mayor and City Council want to slow down the construction of new homes away from the Escondido’s commercial core and instead favor infill-style housing where it’s needed most, so that more people can get out of their cars.

The policy is clearly aimed at the old Palomar Hospital site, an approximately 14-acre plot of land that’s close to transit lines and City Hall. Although it’s zoned for 100 units per acre, meaning it could hold around 1,380 units, the developer has chosen to build a fraction of what’s allowable.

Because of the city’s new policy, the units that one developer leaves on the table could be picked up by another and built somewhere else downtown. The request for an increase in units would still have to go through the normal planning channels.

Coast News Standoff Over AB 5 Continues

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has amended a bill intended to stop the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. It now includes exemptions for several types of professionals, including real estate agents, architects and hair stylists — but not journalists.

AB 5 has the publishers of media outlets, particularly smaller ones like the Coast News, freaked out because some of them rely almost entirely on freelance reporters to produce the news.

Gonzalez has declined to give a blanket exemption to newspapers, arguing that vulnerable, low-wage workers in any industry deserve protection. But she’s also working on “a narrow exemption” for “true” freelance reporters, she said — possibly the ones who can show they operate as an independent business.

She also noted on Twitter that the recent exemptions align with existing wage orders.

Those remarks came in response to a Coast News article about AB 5 suggesting that Gonzalez was picking and choosing exemptions based on campaign donors — which she called insulting. During a series of lengthy exchanges with Gonzalez on Twitter, the author of the article, Steve Horn, a freelance reporter, said he supports union jobs in journalism but spoke critically of the bill. He questioned whether it wouldn’t hasten the demise of small newspapers.

Stuff We’re Working On

In Other News

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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