Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to ask city voters to increase taxes to fund affordable housing or to exempt any community from the coastal height limit.
But a majority of voters in the city of San Diego, who have for years grappled with skyrocketing housing costs and a homelessness crisis, signaled in this week’s election that they are willing to take steps long considered politically unpalatable to attack the city’s housing crisis.
Results as of early Wednesday showed 57 percent of city voters – short of the two-thirds required for passage – supported Measure A, a proposed property-tax hike to help fund 7,500 subsidized affordable housing units for low-income and homeless San Diegans. Insiders had for years considered the measure politically infeasible and while the measure fell short, advocates consider the ask itself and the fact that more than a majority of San Diego voters were willing to support it significant.
And 57 percent of voters also approved Measure E, removing the 30-foot coastal height limit for the Midway District. The height limit has long been considered sacrosanct along the coast, even for that area, which lacks coastal views. That one needed only a simple majority to pass, and its success will lay the regulatory groundwork for thousands more housing units.
A similar share of voters – 56 percent – also seem to have sent a message by choosing Democratic Assemblyman Todd Gloria, as the city’s next mayor. Gloria has for years advocated for housing reforms, ambitious goals to end chronic homelessness and most recently, endorsed the height limit change and the housing bond. Gloria’s Democratic opponent, City Councilwoman Barbara Bry, on the other hand, mounted a campaign that emphasized her desire to protect neighborhoods from development, opposed Measure E and didn’t support Measure A (despite earlier advocating for it).
The similar vote totals – which ranged from an initial 273,000 votes for Gloria to nearly 285,000 votes for the housing bond as of Wednesday – seem to represent a growing share of the electorate that agrees the city and its leaders must respond to a longstanding shortage of units low- and middle-income San Diegans can afford.
“You’ve got an electorate in there that is more willing to think about a changing city, and a city that is more accepting of growth,” said Erik Bruvold, an economist who leads the San Diego North Economic Development Council. “I think if you had tried to raise the height limit 20 years ago, I think it would have been a non-starter.”
Maya Rosas, co-founder of pro-housing group YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County, said both measures and the response they received reflect an increasing demand from San Diegans that local leaders provide solutions that match the significance of the challenges many San Diegans are facing – like whether they can afford to remain in San Diego or fears that they may be forced onto the street amid struggles to pay the rent.
“The solution to address the housing crisis that has been manifesting over several decades has not been commensurate with the scope of the problem,” Rosas said. “The housing crisis is simply getting worse, and so we should be confronting this head on and looking for ways to make peoples’ lives better.”
Measures A and E and the likely ascent of Gloria reflect an increasing demand for more dramatic solutions.
For Measure E and Gloria, that demand seems to have translated into electoral success.
For Measure A proponents, Tuesday’s failure signaled the need to try to make the case to voters again.
“We have to do something in either two or four years,” said Stephen Russell of the San Diego Housing Federation, an affordable housing lobbying group that has led the bond campaign. “The need isn’t going away.”
Russell and other advocates believe the region’s housing and homelessness woes will only worsen during a pandemic that has left many without work and unable to pay rent. They also believe an expected new Democratic majority on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors could set the stage for a countywide pitch.
The optimism comes along with consistent polling in recent years, including by Voice of San Diego, that has shown most San Diegans agree that housing costs and homelessness are two of the region’s foremost challenges.
In interviews at the polls this week, multiple voters also described why they believe a major response is needed.
Taylor Lucas, 28, said her experience renting a $1,700-a-month studio apartment in East Village convinced her of the need for the affordable housing bond.
Golden Hill resident Henry Curiel, 63, said he doesn’t believe San Diego can effectively address its homelessness problem without an infusion of new, low-cost housing for those who have already fallen into homelessness and those who could be on the brink.
“Everyone is one step away from being on the street is what I think,” Curiel said.
North Park resident Shana Sanders, 38, came to a similar conclusion about Measure A.
“We do need a lot more affordable housing out here,” Sanders said.
Dozens of residents and voters also shared testimonies and anecdotes this year as the City Council considered whether to place the housing bond on the ballot and separately, weighed an assistance program for renters now also impacted by the pandemic.
Despite the increasing appeals from residents and advocates, the tough task for local leaders and advocates has been finding solutions that can pass muster with a majority – or supermajority – of voters.
In March, about 65 percent of city voters signed off on Measure C, a hotel-tax increase aimed at funding a Convention Center expansion, homeless initiatives and road repairs. Measure C fell just shy of the required two-thirds with a campaign that heavily promoted its plan to pull in new funds to address homelessness but did not specify how those funds would be used. The business and labor coalition behind the measure is now expected to argue in court that Measure C in fact passed with a simple majority.
The success of Measure E, which did not require a two-thirds vote, suggests voters may be willing to sign off on other solutions that do not require a tax increase and thus do not require supermajority support.
Measure E benefited from bipartisan support and a campaign that highlighted its capacity to help beautify the Midway District and allow an attractive new sports arena rather than focusing solely the prospect of denser housing developments in the area.
Though Midway has no coastal views, it was one of several communities included in the height limit measure a majority of city voters approved in 1972 simply because it was west of Interstate 5.
Midway resident and vocal Measure E supporter Dike Anyiwo, vice chair of the Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group, said community leaders advocated nixing the height limit after recognizing that the changes envisioned in the new development plan approved for the area in 2018 – which allows for thousands of additional housing units – likely weren’t possible without raising building heights.
“We’ve not seen the change,” Anyiwo said. “We always knew the next step was to address the height limit as it stands.”
Republican City Councilman Chris Cate, who helped usher Measure E onto the ballot, said that measure’s success – and Measure A’s seeming failure – speaks to the continuing hostility San Diego voters have shown to tax hikes, even when they are aiming to address major local challenges. After all, Cate said, county voters rejected a tax increase for fire protection a year after devastating 2007 wildfires.
“I think it shows voters want another set of solutions to solve this problem, where folks don’t have to tax themselves to try to solve what we are trying to address,” Cate said.
City Councilman Chris Ward, who championed Measure A, argued the biggest roadblock for the housing bond was the need to reach two-thirds, not the tax proposal itself.
“It’s a lot easier to get to 50 percent than it is to get to 66 percent,” Ward said.
Ward and Russell said this week they were disappointed that the city won’t benefit from the extra tax dollars to help produce thousands of affordable homes. City leaders have long called for the city to produce more low-cost units – specifically, the City Council last year adopted a homelessness plan that calls for it to supply hundreds of permanent supportive housing units to address the crisis. Instead, they said, the city will be more reliant on state and federal funds for housing and homelessness and will lack the additional matching funds that might have helped the city increase the impact of any future influxes of aid.
Both also questioned whether strong leadership and support from Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who ultimately came out against the measure, might have helped turn the dial. The lack of a prominent champion was a setback.
The campaign also faced other challenges, including a pandemic that hit some homeowners hard economically and a quiet push from Measure C supporters a couple years ago to postpone the housing bond, which was initially eyed for 2018, to clear the ballot for the hotel-tax measure.
Russell argued the 57 percent that Measure A won despite those challenges shows the campaign made a compelling case.
Russell said the Housing Federation is eager to partner with Gloria or Bry on efforts to educate San Diegans about affordable housing and the need for more funding for it. He believed either would be a better partner in that mission than Faulconer.
“I see that our role in the future is to help whoever becomes the next mayor, who is going to be a leap forward for the city, and we’re willing to work with them to achieve the goals that are most important to (city) residents,” Russell said.