Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Councilwoman Barbara Bry attend a mayoral forum in Bankers Hill. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It should have been a perfect match, at least according to the established 2020 mayoral campaign narrative.

Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who has pinned her mayoral hopes on identifying herself as the protector of single-family neighborhoods, was speaking to Morena United, a group that has vocally opposed recent efforts to densify the city’s urban core.

Yet no one who watched the meeting unfold would have mistaken Bry and Morena United as partners.

The crowd railed against letting developers pay fees to avoid building low-income homes. Bry defended it. A crowd member said it was contradictory to support the fees while claiming new development could solve the housing affordability crisis. “You’re entitled to your point of view,” she said.

Someone else asked how the city would compensate residents for their diminished quality of life from a new trolley stop. “Some people would say that your quality of life is increasing because of the new trolley station,” Bry said. Bry either didn’t hear or chose to ignore the person who asked about the types of people who ride transit who would now be in their neighborhood.

Then, things got loud.

Earlier this year, capping five years of controversy, the City Council approved a plan letting developers build taller buildings with more homes near a new trolley stop on Morena Boulevard. Bry and Councilwoman Jen Campbell tried to knock the height limit down to 65 feet, but when that failed, they both voted with the rest of the Council for the higher limit.

Bry praised the room for being willing to accept the 65-foot compromise.

“To your credit, you were OK raising the height limit,” she said.

“No!” the crowd reacted in unison, holding it until it resembled a boo.

The confrontation captured a strange truth about the mayoral campaign so far: Bry has shaped the campaign narrative around her desire to protect neighborhoods, but her voting record and the support she’s amassed tell a different story. She’s been more than willing on the Council to support new housing. The same goes for one of Bry’s opponents, Assemblyman Todd Gloria. Though Bry has sought to portray him as willing to OK any project put before him, no matter the community opposition, his record on the City Council and in the state Assembly hasn’t always reflected the characterization. In high-profile instances, he’s parted ways with pro-housing advocates pushing him to do more.

In fact, both candidates agree that they’re probably not as far apart on development issues as the campaign so far has suggested. Now, there’s a big state bill that could test that premise, and it’ll be back up for debate next year, just as the campaign really heats up.

The Email That Defined an Election

For better or worse, the San Diego mayor’s race has come to be dominated by housing, how San Diego can accommodate a growing population, combat rising housing prices, increase transit use and address climate change without changing what people like about their neighborhoods.

Bry is responsible for this framing.

In June, she sent a campaign email titled “They’re coming for our homes,” chastising Gloria for voting for SB 330, a state law that bars cities from downzoning neighborhoods and forces cities to approve development more quickly.

She slammed Gloria for seeking the endorsement of the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County, the most prominent local group from the nationwide “Yes in my backyard” movement, which seeks to combat NIMBYs, or people who say no to development in their neighborhood.

“I understand the corporate interests backing the ‘Yes in My Backyard’ movement,” she wrote. “That’s why many insiders refer to that group as ‘Wall Street in My Backyard.’”

But Bry’s email, and her ominous warning that “they” are coming for people’s homes, which San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman Will Rodriguez-Kennedy called racist, classist and elitist, created an inescapable narrative for the race: YIMBY vs. NIMBY.

It’s a narrative that she now seems to disavow.

“This is not about simplistic labels like NIMBY or YIMBY,” her campaign website now says, without a hint of sheepishness.

The Anti-YIMBY With Developer Support

Both Bry and Gloria have received substantial financial support from the development industry. In fact, Bry has the support of some of the most high-profile developers in town.

For example, three members of the Feldman family, founders of prolific developers Sunroad Enterprises, donated near the maximum allowed to Bry’s campaign.

Thomas Sudberry, founder of Sudberry Properties, developer of Mission Valley’s Civita community, also approached the donation maximum, as have four other employees or Sudberry family members. And Bry’s received the same treatment from David Malcolm and his wife, developer behind the failed indoor skydiving center downtown that the city bought and turned into a homeless navigation center.

Bry’s family, likewise, knows development. Her husband was a successful developer for 10 years. Her ex-husband is a developer. One of her daughters is a developer now with Monarch Group, which is building the Scripps Mesa Apartments.

Mike Turk, who has built 600 homes in Pacific Beach and 6,500 between San Diego and Las Vegas since 1975, supports Bry’s campaign. He’s a max donor, as are four family members or employees, and he hosted a December fundraiser along with Sudberry and Malcolm.

He said he decided to do so after getting to know Bry last year when the Council was working on a “density bonus” program, which lets developers build more homes in a project if they include low-income homes as part of it.

Turk was the chairman of the Lincoln Club at the time, and had supported Bry’s primary opponent, Republican Ray Ellis, when she first won her City Council seat. He said she reached out to him and a few developers after the race.

“I thought we were going to get a whipping, but instead she asked what we could do to make housing development faster, cheaper and how we could get more of it,” he said.

Turk said Bry was key to pulling the density bonus proposal together, and he liked what he saw.

“They really laid it on the private sector,” he said. “You want more housing? We’ll give it to you. You can do mostly market-rate housing, but you’re going to do low-income or workforce housing too. I thought, ‘that’s pretty good.’ It gives you a lot of options.”

And indeed, Bry’s voting record on the Council does not exactly scream NIMBY.

She voted in favor of the Morena Boulevard plan, which allows for 9,000 new homes near two trolley stations. She supported the city’s new community plan in the Midway and Sports Arena areas, which allowed for 11,000 new homes. She voted for a new Mission Valley plan that clears the way for 28,000 additional homes.

Former Councilwoman Donna Frye, who regularly opposed moves to increase development during her political career and protested the city’s Morena Boulevard proposal when it was unveiled in 2014, recently endorsed Bry.

She said she rejects the YIMBY-NIMBY framework in the first place. “If the YIMBYs want to call themselves names, so be it. I’ll call them whatever they want to be called. But I don’t buy it. NIMBY is what YIMBYs call people who don’t agree with their positions.”

In the end, she said she chose Bry because she’s the candidate closest to her, even though she disagreed with Bry’s votes to allow far more homes in Midway and Morena Boulevard.

“I think we need to have more respect for people who’ve lived here their whole lives, and not call them names because they don’t want a high rise with no parking next to their home,” Frye said. “To make them out like they’re bad people, that’s a problem to me. Have a little tenderness.”

There is, in fact, just a single blemish on Bry’s voting record, from the perspective of someone who wants politicians to say “yes” to new housing. And on that, Bry said yes before she said no.

On March 4, the City Council voted to eliminate parking requirements for new projects near transit. Bry voted in favor of the measure. Developers could still choose to build parking, she said, and anyone who didn’t wouldn’t hit the market for two to three more years, giving the city time to improve transit in the meantime.

Two weeks later, during the city’s required second reading of the change, she changed her vote to “no.”

“We have second readings for a reason,” she said. “In the last two weeks I’ve received additional information from residents and responsible builders about the impacts of the policy change on specific communities.”

Turk agreed with Bry on the parking vote.

“That’s a mistake,” he said. “Where are people going to park?”

Maya Rosas, president of the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County, is, unsurprisingly, not a Bry supporter.

Bry may have voted multiple times to increase housing, but that’s no reason to overlook the campaign that she’s running. For one, Rosas said those votes were easy: Since Bry took office at the end of 2016, the pro-housing movement has succeeded in driving public opinion, and votes to increase development aren’t as contentious as they used to be.

But more important than that, Rosas said, is that words matter.

“There’s a reason Barbara Bry is speaking in NIMBY platitudes – she is comforting the people who oppose housing solutions,” she said. “It’s not just that she’s agreeing with them. She’s letting people know it’s OK to say no to housing in the right places and that they don’t need to be part of the solution.”

Turk, though, doesn’t make much of the campaign rhetoric. He doesn’t think it will do much to change the way people feel about housing – and he doesn’t think it reflects much on what Bry believes.

“I don’t follow that,” he said. “Stuff goes back and forth in campaigns, but I don’t read much into it. All sides say what they need to say to attack their opponent.”

He’s not alone.

Yehudi Gaffen, another prominent developer in town who is currently redeveloping the Seaport Village area into what could be the city’s defining waterfront project, has given maximum donations to both Bry and Gloria.

He said he’s known them both for a long time – his kids went to school with Bry’s kids – and he believes they’d both make great mayors.

But he doesn’t think there’s much difference between them on housing.

“I think it’s all political talk, personally,” he said of Bry’s campaign rhetoric. “I think her and Todd are both very much aligned on the issues we face in making housing affordable. It portrays the sense of crisis, but I think it’s been way overstated. I think she’s overstated it. I think she’s using it as a rallying call. But I don’t think people are coming for their houses. I think it’s just rhetoric.”

The YIMBY Who Doesn’t Always Say Yes

Bry now says that YIMBY is just a simplistic label. One person who seems to agree with her is Gloria, who she stuck with the label in the first place.

Gloria sought and received the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County’s endorsement on the day he launched his campaign. Since he was on the City Council, before anyone called themself a YIMBY, he advocated for more housing and more transit in San Diego.

As the interim mayor in 2013, Gloria revived a climate action plan that had been quietly in the works in City Hall. He elevated it into a citywide discussion and pushed for it to include bold requirements, including that half of city residents living near transit would bike, walk or take transit to work by 2035, which would require the city building the sorts of dense, urban neighborhoods that often trigger local opposition.

He said he’s happy to wear the YIMBY label, but said that doesn’t mean he thinks Bry is a NIMBY.

“I’m not the one that’s creating this rhetoric of dividing the two of us,” he said. “I do not support building anything anywhere. I think building out in our backcountry and wildfire-prone areas does not make a great deal of sense for climate and public safety reasons.”

San Diego’s housing affordability crisis, he said, is a supply issue. The city needs to build more housing to address it.

His parents were able to build a life here on modest means, and he’s now surrounded by people who have good jobs and are struggling to make ends meet because of housing prices.

“That’s my motivating issue, and I think that some of the things I’ve seen coming from the other campaign don’t ascribe to those motivations,” Gloria said.

Gloria, too, has received plenty of support from the development community. That’s especially true of developers like Jennifer LeSar’s LeSar Development Consultants, Chelsea Investment Corp. and Affirmed Housing, which build publicly subsidized low-income units, but also includes high-profile urban developers like some of the principals behind East Village’s I.D.E.A. District.

”I think she’s using it as a rallying call. But I don’t think people are coming for their houses. I think it’s just rhetoric.”

But Gloria’s voting record also is more complicated than the YIMBY vs. NIMBY campaign narrative suggests.

Just before Gloria moved on to the Assembly, the Council approved new community plans in Uptown, North Park and Golden Hill, three of the most urban neighborhoods in the city that are also in Gloria’s district. Those plan updates took years to finish, but each started and finished within Gloria’s time on the Council.

The new Uptown plan did not increase the number of homes that could be built there at all. Neither did the new plan in Golden Hill. Only North Park’s did, letting developers build another 2,000 homes in the area.

Gloria said he stands by those plans – especially North Park, which might have only added room for 2,000 new homes, but still has capacity for developers to build 10,000 new homes, since developers never finished building out the previous community plan.

“We still get negative feedback from constituents about the plan and the fact that it allows for that,” he said. “That kind of capacity, it’s pretty significant, and this from a community that previously had interim height limits for about a decade.”

Those plans ran into a different kind of opposition when the Council adopted them. It was Gloria’s typical allies who wanted the city to add more density. The Climate Action Campaign, a nonprofit group that started to support the climate plan Gloria helped the city adopt, even sent a letter stopping just short of threatening legal action.

Rosas said there’s a world of difference between the housing discussion now and when the city passed those plans.

She was on the Uptown planning group when the city adopted the plan. There just wasn’t any sort of public support for building far more homes at the time, she said.

She said Gloria deserves credit because the Uptown planning group wanted a plan that limited development even more.

“He took a bold step in Uptown,” she said. “That might sound weird because it wasn’t an upzone, but he and other pro-housing voices had to fight tooth and nail just to make sure it wasn’t a downzone. In that political context where it was rare to go against your [community planning group], he took an extremely bold, important step saying he supported housing over the will of his planning group. Todd saved Uptown from a total catastrophe.”

Frye, though, is happy to say Gloria says “yes” too often.

On specific projects that came before the Council, she said, he always found a way to vote yes.

“What I have observed is that most of the projects when Todd was on the Council, he supported them,” she said. “Almost every one of them, even if they busted height limits and even if the community was opposed to them.”

Gloria’s time on the Council included plenty of votes that increased development, too. The city adopted new plans in Grantville, San Ysidro and southeastern San Diego during that time, and he approved a contentious amendment in Carmel Valley that made way for the One Paseo development.

“To the extent that I’ve always been identified as someone who prioritizes and is concerned about housing, that’s true – I’m not coming for anyone’s homes, I’m trying to make sure more people have them,” he said.

He would not say whether Bry’s rhetoric was racist, as Rodriguez-Kennedy suggested. He would only say that it’s untrue.

“It’s a political filter to put on an issue that admittedly can be controversial,” he said.

The Looming Fight

The sharpest criticism of Gloria’s support for development despite community opposition, though, does not deal with his time on the Council. Bry has narrowed in on his votes in Sacramento.

Her “they’re coming for our homes” email was a reference to SB 330, which doesn’t increase development possibilities, but does keep cities from decreasing them.

Yet in an early version of the bill Gloria successfully lobbied for a San Diego carve-out, maintaining the city’s coastal height limit. In an interview, Bry called his lobbying for special treatment for San Diego hypocritical.

But when it comes to the state’s involvement in housing issues, the big dog in the fight is SB 50. That bill, written by state Sen. Scott Wiener, would make way for far more development near transit stations and job clusters all over the state, lifting height limits and development restrictions at once.

Gloria, though, has said on a number of occasions that he does not support SB 50 in its current form.

He doesn’t like the way the bill defines the area that is “close” to transit stations or what qualifies as high-quality transit to trigger development increases – “there’s a world of difference in my mind between a light-rail station and a bus stop.” And he thinks the bill needs to recognize how every area is different – a five-story building might make sense on El Cajon Boulevard, and not on Adams Avenue, even if they technically have the same transit service. And he’s worried about what will happen in a budget crunch, when transit agencies might have to cut service after new development already occurred.

He said he doesn’t know if Wiener will be able to fix all those concerns, though he’s hopeful.

But he does not object, on principle, to making this sort of change from Sacramento.

“I mean, there’s a world where I could vote for this bill,” he said. “Having an opportunity to work statewide has educated me to how different this issue is in different parts of the state. And I believe that San Diego is making efforts, maybe not everything is accomplishing what we want, but we’re attempting to. It’s important for every city to do its part… and if communities will continue to say no, perhaps the state needs to be involved to say, ‘No, you’ve got to do it.’”

Bry, though, ignores all that. To her, it’s simple.

“Todd has been endorsed by the YIMBY Democratic Club,” she said. “I refused to seek their support because of their support of SB 50. … He accepted the endorsement of a club that endorsed SB 50. That must mean he supports things like SB 50.”

Bry said it was “probably” true that the campaign narrative that they represent wildly different approaches to housing and development has been overblown.

However similar they might be on issues before the City Council, though, she said the difference between their feelings on state legislation that trumps local decision-making on land use is not small.

“That is a big differentiator,” she said. “In San Diego, we are making these decisions. It is not Sacramento telling us to make these decisions. I’m against Sacramento dictating what happens in our neighborhoods. That differentiates me between [Republican mayoral candidate Scott Sherman and Gloria]. That’s an enormous difference.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized future votes on SB 50. Gloria will vote on it sometime next year if it moves forward.

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

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