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.”
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.