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A large new apartment project has been proposed at the gateway to La Mesa. This project demonstrates the dangers of treating the housing crisis as just an issue of inadequate supply. What this new proposal points out instead is the need for all local jurisdictions in the region to adopt policies requiring that 10 to 20 percent of units in market-rate developments be affordable to lower income households.
We all agree there is a housing crisis. But the crisis we are experiencing is an affordable housing crisis that primarily affects low- and moderate-income households. The “build, build, build” response — proposed as a panacea for the housing problem by many developers, politicians and their allies — is a seductive but ultimately ineffective one since developers will stop or slow building if an abundant supply pushes prices and profits down.
In fact, housing developers are generally meeting the housing needs of the affluent households — about 40 percent of the households in the region who make over $130,000 a year. Only a handful of developers are building housing affordable to the other 60 percent, two-thirds of whom fall into the very low- or low-income categories (families who make up to $65,100 or $104,100 a year respectively). This fact is supported by housing permit data reported annually to the state and regional planning agencies by local jurisdictions.
The project under consideration by the city of La Mesa, known as the Alvarado Specific Plan, would be built on the current site of the San Diego RV Resort (located on the south side of Interstate 8). The developer proposes the construction of 950 residential units with a density of 80 dwelling units/acre. Although it would be adjacent to the 70th St. Trolley station, none of these units would be made affordable to lower income households. As a market-rate development only, the project fails to meet the range of housing needs of La Mesa residents and the region. What should be done?
Inclusionary Housing (IH) is one solution that works. Under an IH policy, developers are required to dedicate between 10 and 20 percent of their market-rate units for deed-restricted affordable housing. IH has been around for at least half a century in dozens of cities throughout the state, and has produced thousands of affordable homes.
While IH will not provide 100 percent of the housing needs for lower income households, it can help meet a substantial portion of that need. And although the building industry generally opposes IH, many studies have demonstrated the financial feasibility of such programs. In the San Diego region, 10 jurisdictions have inclusionary ordinances, two others (Vista and the County of San Diego) are working on ordinances, and seven — including La Mesa — do not have an ordinance.
By providing affordable housing, IH can enable a city to implement a relatively new state law, known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). The intent of this law is to foster integrated, inclusive communities to help overcome patterns of discrimination and reduce the economic and racial segregation seen in urban areas throughout California. Localities — including La Mesa — need to be able to demonstrate their housing plan is taking meaningful actions to affirmatively further fair housing.
The city of La Mesa fares poorly when it comes to the actual production of affordable housing units for lower income households. During the 10 years (2011-2020) of the last Housing Element cycle a minuscule number of permits were issued for affordable housing — just 28 units for very low-income households (6.5 percent of its 430 unit goal) and only 13 units for low-income households (4 percent of its 326 unit goal).
La Mesa needs to do the right thing now vis-à-vis the Alvarado Specific Plan. When the City Council meets to consider rezoning the property from commercial to residential under the Alvarado Specific Plan, it should exercise its authority to require — if the council decides to approve the project — that a certain percentage of the new units be affordable at below market rents. This requirement could be a significant step toward meeting La Mesa’s fair share of the region’s housing needs.
In any case, following the decision on the project, the city should quickly develop and implement an effective inclusionary housing policy to be in place when other new developments are proposed. The other six cities should follow suit.