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The recent effort in San Diego to prevent property owners from being able to construct additional granny flats – one of the few successful steps we’ve taken to address the city’s severe housing shortage – prompts a question that should get more honest attention. In the effort to protect “community character,” why are we selectively protecting the character of only certain communities, and what specifically is the nature of the “character” we are choosing to preserve?
Much like cities throughout California, San Diego has not built enough housing. Every year, the city falls tragically short of approving the 12,000 housing permits needed to keep up with population growth. San Diegans who are renters need to make 2.8 times the local minimum wage to afford the median rent, and more than 70 percent of even our moderate-income households can’t afford to buy a home. Half of the residential neighborhoods in San Diego allow only single-family homes to be built.
California’s love affair with single-family zoning severely constrains housing, and it does so in a way that perpetuates historic racial inequity. Many San Diego neighborhoods as we know them are largely the products of intentional segregation.
There is a clear and direct line between the practice of redlining in the last century – the policies that denied mortgages to Black families and created covenants making it illegal to sell homes to people of color – and the preservation of single-family zoning today. When such obvious discrimination was invalidated in the courts, cities and counties across California, including San Diego, restricted the construction of multifamily housing to achieve the same end goal.
Single-family zoning maintains the legacy of racist housing policy by keeping most high-opportunity neighborhoods unavailable to many families. It directly prevents wealth-building through home ownership and upward mobility by ensuring housing in traditionally white neighborhoods stays both limited and expensive.
The neighborhood associations, HOAs, “slow-growth” groups and others behind the most recent efforts to ostensibly protect “community character” – like those in Kensington, Talmadge, and El Cerrito – have something obvious in common. These are the same communities that used redlining to shut out families of color decades ago. Hiding behind a concern for maintaining “community character” is a very thin veil.
Unless we start (literally) at the ground level with zoning reform efforts, attempts to increase housing production will continue to be blocked by those unwilling to allow any smaller and therefore less expensive housing in their neighborhoods. Ongoing suppression of housing production and continued segregation of San Diego communities will remain the status quo. San Diego needs to make it possible for more people to live in higher opportunity neighborhoods with more community benefits like parks, transit and good schools. Building more housing in these high-opportunity communities isn’t just a solution to the housing shortage, it’s a solution to an equity crisis too.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins has demonstrated leadership on this front by introducing SB 9. This bill will allow homeowners to split their lots or build duplexes, creating more naturally affordable housing and new opportunities for affordable homeownership. Allowing homeowners to choose to build another unit or allowing new homes to be built as duplexes could unlock capacity for nearly 800,000 new homes statewide.
SB 9 will make housing less expensive while incorporating robust anti-displacement protections for renters. This includes preventing homeowners from splitting lots or disturbing homes that have been occupied by renters in the last three years and prohibiting the disruption of existing affordable housing, rent-controlled housing or housing recently leased to a tenant.
And to those who are genuinely concerned about architectural character, SB 9 preserves local control and neighborhood look and feel by ensuring adherence to local design standards, severely limiting alteration or demolition of existing structures, requiring that lot splits create two parcels of similar size that are at least 1,200 square feet, and allows local governments to limit additional accessory dwelling units on these parcels.
San Diego lacks new, undeveloped land for housing, ranking the lowest in the nation for available lot space. Vertical construction is essential, but not sufficient. The only way our city will ever be able to build enough housing to meet the needs of our diverse community, curb homelessness and increase homeownership, is if we add smaller, modestly priced homes to existing neighborhoods.
Passing SB 9 is necessary if we are serious about meeting the housing goals that our region and its residents need now.
Al Abdallah is the COO of the Urban League of San Diego County.