La Mesa Blvd. and Palm Ave. on Dec. 5, 2022 where the Downtown District Sign is planned to be located.
A road in downtown La Mesa on Dec. 5, 2022. / Photo by Gabriel Schneider

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.

Nico Calavita

Nico Calavita is professor emeritus in the Graduate Program in City Planning at San Diego State University. He is coauthor of the book Inclusionary Housing...

David Harris

David Harris is a resident of La Mesa, a long-time community activist, and a former affordable housing planner for the cities of Oceanside and Encinitas.

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  1. I agree that an inclusionary housing policy is an effective tool for producing affordable housing units. As One who financed and built affordable housing over 25 years, I know that such units cannot be built without heavy subsidies from federal, state or local government, and many times from all 3. Many local jurisdictions do not have the necessary funds to do that. An 80 unit, 100% affordable, project could require the city to contribute $10 to $20 million. But by setting a 10% to 20% affordable unit requirement in each project, the private sector would produce a substantial number of such units. Those developers that do that would be rewarded with increased project density, thereby offsetting the losses taken on the affordable units.

  2. Okay there are a couple of hidden realities in the ‘affordable housing’ dilemma described in the opinion piece. The first is the location of the proposed 900+ unit development: The RV Resort is regularly flooded during seasonal rain storms because the open drainage channel running along the property is not maintained by the county. In addition that’s a terrible location for housing there is NO neighborhood and is basically on the freeway !

    But let’s talk about what makes housing ‘affordable’- currently the Average Median Income ( AMI) for San Diego is the determining factor that sets every marker for what is considered affordable. The AMI is over $107,000 in San Diego. That means a developer can say apartments are affordable if the rent is 30-60% of that income . Really? Is $3000 a month for apartment affordable? And guess what- the developer only has to have a small percentage at ‘affordable’ rates – maybe 10 units out of 100. AND guess what again? The developer can RAISE the rent every year based on the AMI . OOPs this doesn’t seem to work for the 49% of San Diegans NOT making the median income.

  3. Me again- I think the authors of the article give a good basic overview of the housing problems in La Mesa and San Diego- but they do it from the perspective of real estate developers. You could say this is a top down approach or ‘show me the money’.
    NOPE that is not going to work. It’s not going to work because the majority of San Diegans are not getting the educational opportunities that lead to stable employment. There is NO career path, no health insurance, no pension .The majority of San Diegans are struggling to hold jobs, to pay the car insurance, to afford food , to pay outrageous utility bills- and then OMG the rent! The last few COVID years has turned many families financial futures upside down.
    It is time for RADICAL social reform – yes- SOME BRILLANT THINKING about raising our community up. AND making housing a universal human right.
    Okay I’m Done

  4. If 6O percent of households in the region are low- and moderate income, then shouldn’t the inclusionary requirement for 2/3 of those households, the very low and low income, be higher than 10-20 percent? Cities must reduce or eliminate barriers to, and provide incentives for, affordable housing development to meet their unmet needs, not a fraction of them. If cities continue to approve market rate developments, without the needed percentage of affordable units, the longer our housing crisis will continue, and the deeper it will be.

  5. I read the phrase affordable housing planner for Encinitas and my head turned around 180 degrees like an owl’s.

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