View of downtown on May 12, 2023.
View of downtown on May 12, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Everyone agrees San Diego is in dire need of affordable housing. Not everyone agrees on where that housing should be built.

A controversial change to the city’s housing laws proposed by Mayor Todd Gloria would give developers wider flexibility to build affordable units in poorer communities, rather than on-site in mixed income level developments.

The current law, known as Complete Communities, allows developers to build much bigger and denser projects – if those projects include a certain portion of on-site affordable housing. Requiring the units to be on-site was a big deal back when the law passed in 2020 under former Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer. It was tougher than many state laws. Supporters argued that on-site affordable units ensure economic diversity across the city and lead to fewer poor people being displaced from their communities.

“There is no doubt that the push for off-site affordable housing as a part of Complete Communities is a backdoor way to bring back redlining and poor doors. People should be embarrassed to introduce that idea. If you want to go for off-site housing let’s change the name to incomplete communities,” said City Councilman Joe LaCava, at a council meeting in February.

LaCava said he would “vehemently” vote against changes to the on-site requirement.

Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for Gloria, argued the changes will ultimately result in more housing units being built across the city.

“The severity of our housing shortage necessitates consideration of proposals that will result in a higher number of units getting built,” she wrote in an email. “This offsite allowance was determined to strike the balance between the commitment to fair housing principles and encouraging the creation of a higher number of homes.”

The changes proposed by Gloria have passed the city’s Planning Commission and land-use committee. They’re expected to come before the full City Council in the coming weeks, as part of his Housing Action Plan 2.0.

Usually, if a developer wants to build an apartment building, they can only build as many units as the parcel’s zoning allows. Given the city’s housing crisis, city leaders wanted to change that back in 2020. They developed the Complete Communities plan. It allowed builders to build as many units as they wanted, as long as their plan included a certain percentage of affordable units and the development was near public transit. It also allowed them to undergo a less stringent permit approval process.

The law did spur development. As of April 2022, 14 projects under the plan had been approved. Those projects accounted for 864 housing units – 211 of which were deed-restricted as affordable to low or very-low income residents, KPBS reported.

At a land-use committee meeting in September, Councilman Stephen Whitburn said he supported the mayor’s plan to get rid of the requirement for on-site affordable units. Whitburn said he had talked to developers, who told him the change would stimulate the creation of more housing.

“I understand and appreciate the argument for requiring affordable housing to be built on site, but we are in a housing affordability crisis,” Whitburn said. “We need every unit of housing we can get.”

The proposed changes rely on the state’s economic opportunity zone map to decide where off-site housing can and can’t be built. The maps divide up neighborhoods based on income level, as well as other factors. Neighborhoods are divided into five different categories from “highest resource” to “high segregation and poverty.”

The changes would force builders to develop off-site, affordable units in any one of the three highest income areas: “highest,” “high” or “moderate.”

Women walk in the Encanto neighborhood on Aug. 1, 2023.
Women walk in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on Aug. 1, 2023. The neighborhood is on the state’s “high segregation and poverty” list. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

That means if a new development is going up in a “highest” resource community, like say, La Jolla, the required affordable units could be built in “moderate” resource communities like Linda Vista or Golden Hill.

Critics of the change say that reduces economic diversity across the city. That’s why LaCava compared it to redlining – a historic practice that often kept Black and Latino people out of White neighborhoods.

The change would also mean that a development going up in a “low” resource area like Logan Heights or Chollas View would be required to put its affordable units in a different neighborhood rated as “moderate” or higher.

Under the proposed rules, developers would essentially be able to pool their required affordable units with other developers into larger affordable housing developments.

Four different builders, for instance, might be required to build five off-site affordable units, each. They could pool their resources to build a single complex with 20 affordable units. They might also sub-contract this work to a developer who specializes in affordable housing.

This creates economies of scale, supporters of the changes say.

In other words, market-rate developers get to do what they do best: build market-rate developments. The same goes for affordable housing developers. Under this new model, even more housing gets built – at least, so the thinking goes.

Aside from reducing economic diversity, critics of the changes also argue it could lead to affordable units being built at a lower quality. Under the current plan, developers must build on-site affordable units to the same standard as each of the other units on a project. The new rules would allow affordable units to be developed at a different standard.

In the end, it’s unclear if LaCava will stick to his promise of vehemently voting against any changes to the on-site requirement.

In September’s land-use committee meeting, LaCava voted to approve the changes and send them to the full City Council.

This post has been updated to remove “(sic)” from Rachel Laing’s quote.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

Join the Conversation


  1. Ah! Economic discrimination at its finest. “We do not want “Those People” in our high end development.”

    I wondered how long the Affordable Housing mandate would last. As the article notes the lower income housing can now be built off site to Ghetto standards.

    It seems as if Mayor Gloria is still carrying water for his developer / campaign donor buddies.

    1. The units would not be built to ‘Ghetto standards”, because their financing would include resources like federal tax credits and other government related resources. The standards in those fund sources are high. Secondly, the units can only built in neighborhoods that a slight notch down from the site of the developer’s mkt. rate sight ( i.e. they could not move their requirement from La Jolla to Logan Heights, but they could move it to Linda Vista or Mission Valley).

      1. It’s a shame that hard-working Americans would be denied potential access to a higher end ZIP Code where a public school system would be much more advantageous. Don’t water down the current bill for immediate gratification!

  2. I think it’s important to note that under the municipal code, affordable housing could be built off-site for other housing projects. This action just allows it for complete communities projects as well.

    1. But for other projects (density bonus or inclusionary housing) the off-site units per the Municipal Code must be built in the same community planning area (CPA) or within one mile of the Complete Communities project. The proposed off-site option for Complete Communities allows units to be built in any Moderate, High, or Highest Resource Opportunity Area within a Sustainable Development Area (SDA).

    2. Housing welfare should be eliminated in the first place , but if you have to have it the choice is:
      Lecava,s way 1 welfare unit in LA Jolla and a virtue signal point for him or
      4 units in La mesa.
      Lecava doesn’t want to “solve” anything, what would he do all day?

  3. I would like to publicly thank Joe La Cava for his comments regarding “Off Site Housing”. We should be mixing affordable and high end housing if we wish to remain one culture.

  4. A few points worth noting:

    Off-site “Big A” affordable units in San Diego are costing between approximately $500,000 and $900,000 each, even for small units. This is not going to lead to building more affordable units because they are often more expensive to build than market-rate housing.

    This change is not consistent with the goal of California’s HCD definition of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing: “The goal of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) is to combat housing discrimination, eliminate racial bias, undo historic patterns of segregation, and lift barriers that restrict access in order to foster inclusive communities and achieve racial equity, fair housing choice, and opportunity for all Californians.” IT DOES NOT FOSTER INCLUSIVE COMMUNITIES OR UNDO HISTORIC PATTERNS OF SEGREGATION. IN FACT, IT ENCOURAGES SEGREGATION BASED ON INCOME. (Source:,and%20opportunity%20for%20all%20Californians)

    It is not consistent with AFFH to allow the affordable housing for a project in a “highest opportunity zone” to be replaced with housing in a “high opportunity zone” or a “moderate opportunity zone.” If the affordable housing is moved off-site (which I believe is discriminatory), the off-site housing should be in the same opportunity or preferably a higher opportunity zone. Further, the off-site housing would need to have the same amenities as the Complete Communities project to provide comparable housing.

    The author links to an outdated Opportunity Zone Map. Here is the updated 2024 map: The new map is significantly different from the 2024 map based on methodological changes.

  5. Yes, this is very disappointing!
    I’ve lived all over Los Angeles, and you can easily see the quality of different developments in different areas. This is probably going to go through as the city, nor county, wants to pay the costs to develop truly affordable housing across the spectrum.
    Look to New York to see what happens when the builders are allow to have separate societies in the same building. The affordable housing has a separate entrance and access to the amenities.

  6. It should be added the many moderate resource communities are highly UNDER-resourced themselves. They lack city parks, libraries, and/or neighborhood commercial services.

  7. How about this…out of 864 new houses 664 are “affordable” deed restricted ,low income since that’s what’s needed? Seems to better address the issue for San Diego’s lack of AFFORDABLE housing.

    1. The deed restricted units are for three income categories — very low, low, and moderate not just low income. Also, 211 units out of 864 were deed restricted not 664 per the story: “The law did spur development. As of April 2022, 14 projects under the plan had been approved. Those projects accounted for 864 housing units – 211 of which were deed-restricted as affordable to low or very-low income residents, KPBS reported.”

  8. Democrats use this to try to force their voting blocks into every district. That is why so many of them want to make welfare housing in La Jolla even though it would cost vastly more and mean much less affordable housing actually gets built.

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