San Diego homes / Photo by Sam Hodgson

When San Diego decision-makers look for guidance on how residents feel about proposals to build more housing in their communities, they look to groups that are older, whiter and richer than the city as a whole.

And it’s not a close call.

Nearly twice as many planning group members own a home as the city at large. The share of city residents between 20 and 29 is nearly five times greater than the share of planning group members. And white people make up nearly double the share of planning group members as they do San Diego residents.

In its first survey of who makes up the city’s so-called community planning groups –  the 42 elected boards that represent specific geographic areas, reviewing city planning decisions and private development proposals there – the San Diego planning department found current and past members of the group are unrepresentative of the city.

Those findings, though they come from an unscientific survey, are now likely to inform efforts to reform the groups that had fallen dormant amid legal uncertainty.

Late last year, a City Council committee passed a series of reforms to the city’s planning groups. Though the Council adopted the policy outlining the groups in 1976, they’ve been under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with critical reports from the city auditor, county grand jury and a private housing advocacy group in 2018, and a legal memo from the city attorney last year that indicated the groups could be illegal as currently constituted.

Circulate San Diego, a transit advocacy organization, argued the groups are undemocratic, create barriers to participation and amplify the voices of older people who already own a home, contributing to the region’s housing crisis. The city auditor found the groups lack oversight and transparency – making it difficult to track how influential or successful they are, and how representative they are of the areas for which they speak. And the grand jury said the groups need more robust recruiting so they can ensure diverse representation, and tighter oversight to ensure they don’t create needless project delays.

Following those reports, Councilman Scott Sherman convened a task force to put together more than 30 proposed reforms for the planning group system, many of which won committee approval in December.

Those recommendations have not come to the full City Council since then. That’s partially because just before that meeting, the city attorney issued a memo that stopped short of offering a firm legal opinion, but suggested the city needs to make changes to the groups for them to be legal. And that’s before considering a state law last year that restricted cities from having more than five public hearings on housing projects, further complicating the groups’ role in making development decisions.

But if the City Council picks up its dormant reform effort, it’ll now have clarity on the makeup of planning groups through data from the city’s planning department that confirms what critics of the process had long alleged, but that no one had ever quantified: the groups are not representative of the city.

City planners in December and January sent a survey to its planning group email list, which includes both current and former members, and posted the same survey online for anyone to participate. The city received 912 responses, 296 of which came from past or current planning group members.

It found that 86 percent of current or former planning group members who responded are homeowners, compared with just 47 percent of San Diego residents, according to a 2017 Census estimate.

Among survey respondents, 79 percent of current or former planning group members live in single-family homes, even though those homes make up just 54 percent of the city’s housing, according to the San Diego Association of Governments.

The age discrepancy is even more pronounced. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s population is under 40, though people in that age range account for just 15.2 percent of past or former community planning group members who responded to the survey. On the flip side, 71 percent of past or former community planning group members are over 50, compared with just 43 percent of the city’s population.

City planners also asked how satisfied people were with the planning group system as it exists. The highest level of satisfaction came from current or former planning group members who were 70 to 79 years old. The lowest level of satisfaction came from people who were never on a board, between the ages of 18 and 29.

That all gives ammunition to those who have long argued that the boards’ skewed demographics lead to priorities and decisions that are unresponsive to the housing and transportation needs of younger and poorer residents who are more likely to be Black or Latino.

The city now needs to decide how it can address the legal questions raised by the city attorney about the role planning groups play in development in San Diego. Once that happens, or at the same time, the Council can decide which reforms it wants to pursue.

The changes in front of the Council now come from Sherman’s task force, which pulled them from the reports by the city auditor, county grand jury and Circulate San Diego. Those changes would affect how the groups conduct meetings, review development proposals, collect data on membership and determine eligibility for board elections and administer elections. It would also force the city to train board members more thoroughly and oversee the boards more stringently. The Council committee gave the greenlight to most of those policy moves, with slight tweaks.

Sherman, though, is termed out this year. To finish the reform efforts he kickstarted, the full slate of changes would need to come before the board soon – likely in September.

Council committee decisions are supposed to go before the full Council within a matter of months. The brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic came just as that was supposed to happen, which also delayed the city attorney’s expected legal opinion on how the city could proceed to unravel the legal issues around the groups.

Eventually, Council President Georgette Gomez will need to bring the committee’s decisions to the full Council; Sherman or someone else could force the issue now. By the time that happens, the Council will likely have a legal opinion guiding its decisions – plus the new city data underscoring the criticisms that have long been leveled at the groups.

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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