Photo courtesy of Studio E Architects

It is no secret that San Diego is in the midst of a housing shortage, but the severity of the shortage is often underestimated.

In the past few years, the city of San Diego has kickstarted a new housing boom — largely by issuing significantly more building permits in recent years. Additionally, the state has made significant changes to single-family zoning, and the San Diego Association of Governments has put forward a plan to boost the region’s transportation infrastructure to both handle the increased density and work toward cutting the region’s carbon emissions to fight climate change. These plans include significantly increasing the density of single-family neighborhoods, building large, multi-family housing units near transit hubs, building more bike lanes and incentivizing the use of public transit while disincentivizing driving.

Without the proper context, these plans can seem extreme, but policymakers are just beginning to truly grapple with the region’s housing problem. The truth is: even these ambitious solutions fall far short of solving the problem at hand.

Housing by the Numbers

San Diego requires more housing, much more than we’re comfortable admitting. According to the most recent state assessment — known as RHNA — the city of San Diego needs to construct an additional 108,036 new housing units by 2029 in order to meet its housing needs. That’s enough housing to shelter the entire population of El Cajon with units left over.

In the past three years, San Diego has built approximately 5,200 units per year with the vast majority of those starting construction in 2019 and 2020. In the last decade, San Diego has built just over 47,000 housing units, down from 55,000 from 2000 to 2010 and 60,000 during the ’90s.  the city would not be able to meet its housing goals in the next decade. And in 2030 the targets will be revised, and the number of units needed by 2040 will be set even higher.

Community Resistance & Social Equity

OK, so it’s clear San Diego needs to build a lot of housing. We’ve covered that. But the reality is it needs to build that housing in existing communities. It’s that idea that causes the most pushback from existing residents. Success involves a greater number of apartment complexes and condos, and fewer single-family homes. It also won’t alleviate our problems if we constrain new construction to certain — often less wealthy — neighborhoods.

Housing policy is a powerful lever to reduce racial and social inequality. Building both market-rate and affordable housing units in wealthy neighborhoods allows less wealthy and more disadvantaged residents access to good schools, safe neighborhoods, and good public transit, which is a boon to those trying to improve their lives. Right now, many of San Diego’s wealthy areas are fairly exclusionary, and more housing in those areas will actively improve racial and social equity.

It’s also important to remember that while San Diego’s housing deficit is truly enormous, the city itself has a large enough footprint that, if housing was spread evenly across all city communities, the overall impact to each wouldn’t actually be so dramatic. According to an old city webpage, there are approximately 120 neighborhoods in the city of San Diego, so if each one allowed 900 new housing units, we could solve our housing crisis. Some communities in the city are already doing their part, but many others are resistant to even small changes.

Eating Our Housing Vegetables

We need to accept that “America’s Finest City” needs to evolve if we want to actually solve our housing crisis. But that’s OK. We’ve weathered change before, and if we succeed now, we’ll become a better city in the process. In the past, San Diego has often simply ignored these problems, fearing large deviations from the status quo, and instead preferring comfortably avoidant nostalgia to active solutions.

San Diego has long considered itself a sleepy beach town; often content to be ignored by the national conversation. Our endless summers and carefree attitudes differentiate us even from the rest of the golden state. But that contentedness has a downside: as a region, we lack the motivation to solve real, systemic problems. As Scott Lewis, CEO and editor-in-chief of Voice of San Diego, said on a recent episode of the VOSD Podcast, “It’s still just easier to just go along with things as they are … There’s an aversion to change that is very powerful here.”

We need to build a lot more housing, and that housing will change San Diego, but it will be for the better. We may often prefer the status quo, but the truth is — the status quo for housing is really terrible. We must do better.

Brian Schrader is a software developer and writer focusing primarily on housing and climate change. He lives in Normal Heights.

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