Pechanga Arena / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Imagine a 48-acre site, ripe for redevelopment near the Old Town Trolley/Amtrak/Coaster station, and where a 30-foot height limit has been removed.

Now imagine this prime piece of real estate is owned by the city of San Diego — a public agency that could and should take this unique opportunity not to solicit a development project focused on making the most profit possible, but one that would create a model balanced community that provides housing affordable for individuals and families of all income levels, not just the 10 percent of low-income housing required by the city’s inclusionary housing program. A planner can imagine, right?

To someone who worked much of their professional planning career on solving the region’s housing crisis, the Sports Arena site provides an incredible opportunity for showcasing what can and should be done on public properties in California to provide a true range of housing types for people of all income levels not the primarily market-rate housing affordable only to those who make higher incomes as currently proposed.

With the redevelopment of this property, the city could make history and win local, state and national accolades and awards by soliciting new proposals for a project in which the housing component would require housing for all income levels in accordance with (or in proportion to) what’s called the city’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment allocation, or RHNA.

For those who don’t know the wonky term RHNA, let me explain. State law requires all cities and counties to prepare a housing element of their general plan every eight years. These housing plans are required to show that cities and counties have adequate sites zoned to accommodate the housing needs assigned by the state and local council of governments — in our region, this is SANDAG. Programs to help ensure these housing units are built are also required. Each jurisdiction is assigned a total housing need number broken down into four income categories: very low, low, moderate and above moderate.

For the 2021-2029 housing element cycle, the total RHNA for the city of San Diego is 108,036 units. The breakdown by income category is, in round numbers, 40 percent lower income, 20 percent moderate income and 40 percent above moderate income, or 40/20/40.

The city should require that 60 percent of the homes provided on the city-owned Sports Arena site be affordable to lower- and moderate-income households (a significantly higher percentage than is currently required) because the city’s (and region’s) housing crisis is in the low- and moderate-income categories, not in the market-rate, above moderate-income category, as evidenced by the city’s most recent annual housing element progress report. The report shows the city has issued building permits for 121 percent of its “above moderate” income RHNA target for the current housing element cycle (provided by the market), but only 17 percent of its very low-, 22 percent of its low- and .2 percent of its moderate-income RHNA targets.

These numbers demonstrate the need to build a significantly higher number of lower- and moderate-income homes, and the Sports Arena site – because it is owned by the city – provides the opportunity to do that.

What would this model balanced community look like? Well for one, it would look the same or better than any market-rate multifamily development in San Diego. Affordable housing developments built during the past 20 years in San Diego are well-designed, well-maintained and well-managed apartments built by nonprofit and for-profit builders. These affordable homes for lower-income households are indistinguishable from market-rate apartments, and in many cases more attractive and better integrated into their neighborhoods.

Importantly, a model balanced community on the Sports Arena site based on the RHNA assignments, would implement city policy as stated in San Diego’s recently adopted housing element:

San Diego is envisioned as a world-class city where residents of all ages, abilities, and income levels can thrive through access to quality housing, jobs, public transportation, and recreation in safe, equitable, and sustainable communities …

One important way the City can achieve this vision is by prioritizing equitable development and promoting balanced communities. The City of Villages strategy includes a commitment to creating and maintaining economically and socially diverse communities, which can be achieved by providing a mix of housing types that are suitable for households of various income levels …

The Sports Arena site provides an opportunity to show the city’s commitment to providing the affordable, below market-rate housing for lower- and moderate-income families and individuals the city and region (and for that matter, the state) desperately need, and to implement a long-standing goal of its general plan: creating balanced communities. With the removal of the 30-foot height limit and funding from the state and federal government matched with city housing funds, this idea could be implemented.

All it would take is political will from Gloria and the nine members of the City Council, and some creativity.

Susan Baldwin is a retired SANDAG planner who prepared three Regional Housing Needs Assessments.

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