The site of the Newland Sierra development near San Marcos / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

There is record-high employment across the San Diego region and interest rates are ridiculously low. Meanwhile, there is strong demand for new housing, especially among working families and young professionals, because inventory is limited and so few of them can afford a $600,000 starter home or soaring rent payments.

Under these conditions, the market should rise to meet the demand with an abundance of new homes and apartments. Instead, the opposite is happening. New homes and apartments are being constructed at a much slower than needed pace, and young families are suffering the most as the region’s housing crisis deepens.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

The latest numbers shed light on what the building industry refers to as the “missing middle.” Between 2010 and 2018, the housing permits pulled for the San Diego region total 67,235 for high-income homes, 2,326 for middle-income homes and 8,174 for low- and very low-income homes. We’re not building homes for police officers, firefighters, teachers, nurses, young professionals and others. These people are the backbone of the economy.

A recent study found nearly 50 percent of the region’s largest working group, millennials, are considering leaving San Diego during the next two years and most of them are considering doing so because of high housing costs. That young brilliant scientist at Illumina making $100,000 a year, who is literally developing technologies that save lives, could leave for a similar job in North Carolina because she can afford a nice home there near the beach. Here, her choices are less attractive: over-extending herself on a mortgage for a run-down inland home she can’t afford or doubling up in an expensive, cramped apartment.

Losing young scientists to other parts of the country is but one of many negative impacts one can trace back to San Diego’s housing crisis. Remarkably, groups like the Sierra Club are making a bad situation worse. In the face of this housing emergency, litigation brought by the Sierra Club threatens the development of 10,000 new homes for San Diegans, and, ironically, the Sierra Club lawsuit will lead to more air pollution, not less.

To understand how this happened one must first understand the litigation. Essentially, the Sierra Club interpreted the county general plan as a mandate on home-builders to mitigate all impacts from their developments within the county’s borders. A judge agreed. The county is appealing.

Developers throughout California are required to offset environmental impacts — anticipated auto emissions, for example — when they build new projects. They mitigate these impacts in a variety of ways, but there’s a few important points to understand: mitigation must comply with California law and requiring a home-builder to meet all of their mitigation obligations within county borders is a bar much higher than the state mandates; it’s also an impossible threshold to achieve.

This elevated threshold amounts to a de facto ban on all new housing in unincorporated areas of the county. Worse, it exacerbates a crisis that already is hurting the economy, the environment and our quality of life.

Greenhouse gas emissions are a global issue that knows no boundaries — and neither should our mitigation efforts. In other words, the earth’s atmosphere does not care whether a wind turbine or solar collector is located in San Diego, San Bernardino, Santa Monica or Austin.

The Sierra Club and its allies are fueling a problem — vehicle emissions — they claim they’re fixing. All the work they do to block progress means more San Diegans are forced to move to Riverside County, where they can afford a home, and commute back here for work. Today, roughly 60,000 people make this commute every work day, and that number is expected to grow to 100,000 by 2050 if there aren’t more homes for working families and young professionals.

These long-distance commuters spend up to four hours a day on the road, jamming freeways and polluting the air. Who is mitigating the impacts of these exhaust fumes? No one. In fact, San Diego County is losing tax revenue because while these commuters drive here for work, they live in Riverside, they shop in Riverside, they pay taxes in Riverside.

If the county is able to win its appeal there is, unfortunately, another de facto ban on the horizon. A small group of wealthy individuals recently collected enough signatures to qualify a no-growth measure that will appear on the countywide ballot in March 2020.

Supporters of the so-called Save Our San Diego Countryside measure argue it protects rural lands and the county’s general plan. The loopholes and exemptions in the measure mean it won’t protect the backcountry. The measure, for example, puts no limits at all on building or expanding hotel resorts, casinos, country clubs, office buildings, warehouses, distribution centers or manufacturing plants. Yet it would force costly countywide elections to add as few as six homes to unincorporated areas of the county.

The county’s general plan was not intended to be a rigid planning document. Planning experts agree it should be updated to meet community needs, but that won’t happen if this initiative passes.

I am all for urbanism, infill and transit-oriented development. It’s badly needed, but so is building outside the urban core along the I-15 growth corridor in North County. We are not going to infill our way out of the housing crisis.

Unfortunately, there likely won’t be any meaningful changes to housing policies and politics until there is a generational shift. Eventually there will be a changing of the guard, but by then will the fallout from the housing crisis be insurmountable?

I want my kids to stay here if they choose to, but I worry that choice is being made for them. San Diego is becoming the next Santa Barbara — a place where only 1 percenters can afford to buy a home.

Tony Manolatos is a principal at a local public affairs firm and his clients include non-profit and for-profit home-builders who oppose the Sierra Club’s lawsuit and the SOS Measure.

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