In the only race for an open City Council seat, Democrats Kent Lee and Tommy Hough are distinguishing themselves for District 6 voters through their views on housing.
As San Diego continues to rank among the least affordable cities in the country, housing is weighing heavily on the minds of voters in the redrawn district that includes Kearny Mesa, Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley and University City.
Likely voters in District 6 overwhelmingly cite housing-related issues as the city’s biggest issue — 35 percent say homelessness is their top concern, and another 25 percent cite housing costs specifically, according to polling conducted by Ryan Clumpner, a political consultant working for a independent expenditure committee called New San Diego that supports Lee. The third most-cited issue — roads and other infrastructure — is not even close, at just 4 percent.
Housing is, in other words, the defining policy issue in this election, and it’s Hough, who has regularly argued against the city’s current response of rezoning, who has set down the clearest lines distinguishing the two candidates.
Lee, the executive director of the nonprofit Pacific Arts Movement, finished first in the June primary, with the backing of the City Hall establishment. He has the support of Mayor Todd Gloria, six of the sitting Council members, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and major labor groups, including the Building and Construction Trades Council.
Lee and Hough both tout the need for more affordable housing, and both support the city’s proposal to update development regulations in Kearny Mesa to would make way for dense housing in the largely commercial area. Both say housing and infrastructure need to be built simultaneously to meet the region’s climate goals.
But Hough, an environmentalist and former radio host, has been much more vocal about the housing he doesn’t like — specifically new developments that are out of reach for most people. Hough, whose campaign slogan is “Neighborhoods First,” said his skepticism toward City Hall comes from projects like 3 Roots near Sorrento Valley, with prices ranging from $800,000 to $1.2 million.
Hough, who’s also a county planning commissioner, blames the city’s strong mayor form of government, which he said has made it harder for communities to directly negotiate with developers.
“We need a Council that will act as an effective counterweight in this environment,” he told me.
Lee, too, is critical of the higher-end homes popping up, but thinks one solution is lowering the cost of construction by reducing permitting time. He said the city needs more middle-income housing, pointing as an example to the Common at Parco in National City project, where rent for a co-living suite starts at $960 per month and studios run for about $1,500.
“As a region, we are absolutely in a housing crisis and there’s no way every community will be able to say we don’t want growth because it’s going to happen and is already happening naturally,” Lee said. “Looking ahead, we can’t find ourselves in a situation where an entire generation of San Diegans can’t stay here.”
Hough has also advocated for homebuilding in empty Miramar industrial spaces, where infrastructure already exists, and said he supports rent control, vacancy taxes and the creation of a public bank to offer low-cost loans for down payments.
Lee, meanwhile, said he’s interested in a housing fund that could make investments without the returns that private equity and traditional lending models expect. He said the city needs to assess public land for affordable housing and develop a strategy to preserve affordable housing units at risk of being converted to market-rate housing.
Hough tends to qualify his support for housing based on a project’s proximity to a major transit center. Earlier this year he went to the University City Planning Group to oppose the city’s attempt to allow for medium-density townhomes there, citing the congestion it would cause.
“I can’t quite get a really solid answer on where anyone thinks all the cars are going to go,” he said. “We are talking about an extraordinary number of units being added into these communities. I believe that all of our communities can accommodate some additional housing, but we have a lot of carts being put in front of the horse.”
The problem, as Hough sees it, is that the rezone was predicated on Governor Drive — which runs through south University City — becoming a hub of public transit beyond the couple bus routes there now. The Blue Line trolley is more than a mile away, along the western edge of the neighborhood.
After the city abandoned the townhouse proposal amid public outcry, Hough celebrated and vowed to “defend the area’s single-family zoning while pursuing sensible, transit-centered and affordable housing options in Kearny Mesa and Miramar.”
Lee didn’t take a position on the proposal, but said the city created mistrust by catching residents by surprise.
“The city wasn’t acting in any nefarious way,” he said, “but they need community input to find ways of balancing growth and respecting the surrounding character.”
Lee, however, is unwilling to position himself as a defender of single-family zoning.
“In many ways that’s not possible,” he said, pointing to a new state law that allows up to four homes on single-family lots.
Hough has also pledged to stop a redevelopment proposal in Mira Mesa, where he lives. City planners would turn the car-oriented neighborhood into an “urban village” by changing development restrictions to allow for about 30,000 more homes, twice as many as are there now.
Hough said he’s skeptical the city and region will provide the transportation options necessary for that much housing.
“I support housing. I’m not opposed to building housing,” he told the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group in March. “But we’re not going to undo single-family housing to do that, especially if we’re just building more and more housing that no one can afford.”
Lee, who sits on the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group, said the proposal is another example of the city’s failure to get buy-in from residents upfront.
He said community members have a reasonable expectation that new housing be coupled with more green space and infrastructure. The neighborhood only has one library branch at the moment but is expected to serve upwards of 100,000 people over time.
“These are not black and white issues,” he told me.