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San Marcos and North County are losing young people, which is bad news for families, businesses and for our schools. From 2015 to 2020, North County saw a net loss of individuals under 40, while the region’s population of residents over 65 grew and is expected to double by 2050. If this trend continues, families will part, businesses (of all kinds) will have difficulty finding workers, and our public schools will continue to see declining enrollment.
While it’s not entirely clear why young people are leaving (and not arriving), it doesn’t take much imagination to know the high cost of housing is playing a major role. With the median price of a home in San Marcos at nearly $1 million, and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment at around $2,600 per month, it’s no wonder young people are looking elsewhere.
Just last month the San Marcos City Council approved a condominium project of sorely needed housing units. The project is just adjacent to Cal State San Marcos, will have 151 units, and was presented to the council as having “a variety of floor plans meant to be attractive to a variety of community members,” including, what was called, “attainable or work-force housing.”
As a member of that City Council, I wondered what these new condos might cost if they were for sale today. Doing some math based on price per square foot that day, I determined that the 19 smallest units in this yet-to-be-built project would sell for roughly $471,000, and the remaining 131 would start at $735,000 and go up beyond a million. That is hardly “attainable” housing for “a range of buyers.”
I don’t fault the builder, since it completed the process the city demanded, but it’s time cities like mine started demanding something different.
Producing market-rate housing for a lower cost is no easy task. Like most of our county, San Marcos is a beautiful place, and the cost of land is high, not to mention the costs of materials, labor, and builder fees. But there are actions cities can take to produce market rate housing that is more likely to be affordable.
First, increase density in zoning. Nearly 80 percent of all residential land in San Marcos is zoned for one house per lot, and for 30 years, single family detached homes have dominated the landscape. While those homes have served us well, today we need something different. Cities like San Marcos need to find areas within the city, preferably in areas walkable to existing amenities, such as underutilized industrial areas, and approve smart, infill projects along the 78 corridor that would cater to young professionals, couples, and students alike. Think duplex, quadplex, low rise and midrise projects.
Second, require smaller living units. The average size of a detached home in the U.S. was 1,000 square feet in the 1950s. Today most new condos are much bigger than that. Indeed, studies show that American homes are increasing in size while the number of occupants in those homes is shrinking. Bigger houses for fewer people mean a higher sale price and lots of unused bedrooms, while young people can’t afford any rooms at all. Allowing more smaller units will allow developers to make the profits they need to construct these projects. Today, a 750-square-foot dwelling could be available for around $400,000. Not cheap, but more attainable for people at or near household median incomes.
Third, restrict institutional investor purchases of these properties, including flippers. It’s no secret that institutional investors are gobbling up new housing in the U.S., and locally we’ve seen corporate flippers outbid first-time buyers on fixer uppers, denying them entry into the housing market. In 2021, roughly 5 to 10 percent of all housing purchases in North County were by investors, which amounts to thousands of homes. We had a 24-unit condo project open last year in San Marcos, and one person offered to buy all 24. Thankfully, the conscientious builder said no, but we need policy and law to restrict large scale investors from buying our housing stock, not just good-hearted builders and owners. If housing becomes strictly a commodity, we all lose.
The reality is that in a country where the cost of housing is dictated by market forces, the nice places like San Marcos will always be in demand. But we can’t forget about the people who make our region run, the schoolteachers, our first responders, skilled trade and service industry workers, and in San Marcos, our college students. Housing insecurity is quickly becoming the crisis of our time, and it is local governments, acting intentionally, who are in the best position to address it. It’s complicated, I know, but we city leaders should at least try.