Mayor Kevin Faulconer delivers his 2019 State of the City address. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

With two years left in office, former Mayor Kevin Faulconer used his 2019 State of the City speech to dive into the city’s housing debate, referring to himself as a YIMBY and pledging to roll back regulations that inhibit housing production, even if that meant upsetting existing residents.

Now, as he seeks to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in a recall election, Faulconer took aim at the top legislative priority of state YIMBY groups when he pledged to veto any law that undermined single-family zoning.

“When we see some of these pieces of legislation that want to eliminate single-family zoning in California, that’s wrong,” Faulconer said at a recall debate last week. “I will veto that.”

He was referring to SB 9, which would allow for two homes on every single-family zoned lot and let property owners easily split their lots in half, allowing up to four homes on an area previously reserved for one. It’s a top legislative priority of groups like California YIMBY and the YIMBY Dems of San Diego County.

But beyond putting him at odds with groups to whom he had recently cozied up, Faulconer’s pledge to protect single-family zoning is also at odds with his own administration’s take on his approach to single-family zoning.

In his last year in office, Faulconer proposed a policy dubbed Complete Communities, an incentive program that allowed developers to sidestep certain development limits if they built near transit and jobs, and agreed to provide certain community benefits. It passed just before he left office, adding tenant and anti-displacement protections to win support of progressive Council members.

That program – consistent with Faulconer’s pledge to veto bills like SB 9 – explicitly exempted any property that was zoned for single-family homes, even those within a half-mile of transit.

But Mike Hansen – the city’s planning director under Faulconer and now under Mayor Todd Gloria, and a top staffer in the mayor’s office on planning and development issues before he became planning director – argued at the time that Complete Communities exempted single-family areas not because of their sanctity, but because they could adopt the measure quickly if it applied only to areas already zoned for apartments, whereas applying it elsewhere would require a lengthy environmental review.

“I do think that’s an issue we need to take head-on,” said Hansen, of reforming single-family zoning. “There’s a legacy we’re grappling with from decisions made over many decades.”

But Faulconer’s administration didn’t just claim it was an important issue deserving attention – it argued they already had begun undoing single-family zoning through other policy moves.

San Diego in the last five years went beyond the state’s move to make it easier for property owners to build granny flats – also called accessary dwelling units, ADUs – by lowering fees and waiving parking requirements. The city under Faulconer also let single-family homeowners build more than one granny flat if they agreed to an income restriction on one of the units; homeowners near transit could build unlimited additional units (as long as they complied with other development rules), and those not near transit could build two extra units on their single-family lot. That’s not exactly like SB 9, but in many circumstances it could lead to the same result: multiple small homes on current single-family lots.

“So to us, when other cities like Minneapolis and Seattle were doing press events around ending single-family zoning, we felt like we had functionally already done so through ADU reform, to the extent that ADU reform allows multiple units on a property that had been zoned for one,” Hansen said in an interview last year.

There’s a reasonable debate about whether ADU reform really is a de facto reform to single-family zoning. The financial onus for turning those new opportunities into places for people to live falls on individual property owners. It can still be expensive and time-consuming, especially for people who are not professional developers. And not all new granny flats operate as housing – many become short-term vacation rentals, and others act as places for extended family to stay when they visit, hence the names “in-law suite” and “granny flat” in the first place.

One set that seems to agree with the Faulconer administration is the neighborhood group that’s rallied in opposition to the city’s granny flat efforts.

“The city made a pretty significant change to our single-family residential zoning, and there’s never really been a public debate about this,” resident Geoff Hueter told the Union-Tribune this year. “This takes us from granny flats, which are for your older parents or your kids, to six- or eight-unit apartment buildings in back yards.”

This isn’t Faulconer’s first switch on YIMBYism. When he announced he was going full YIMBY in his 2019 speech, a major focus was an attack on height limits that have hampered development in many desirable San Diego neighborhoods.

But back in 2013, after we wrote a story on the legacy of San Diego’s coastal height limit – a voter-imposed restriction that bars development above 30 feet in the area west of I-5, north of downtown – Faulconer went out of his way to say the law worked great, and had no effect whatsoever on housing prices in San Diego (he actually laughed at the notion that it had).

I asked him if he thought it made sense to tweak the limit in certain areas, since some areas west of I-5 aren’t coastal in the first place.

“My sense is it’s working, and it’s working well,” he said. “It doesn’t need any tweaks. It’s serving the protections that we want. I have not heard of any concerted effort to change it. That would not make any sense at all.”

In 2020, Faulconer championed a ballot measure changing the height limit so that it no longer applied to the Midway area, an under-developed neighborhood just west of I-5.

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

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