Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Assistant City Clerk Diana Fuentes in City Council Chambers in downtown on June 13, 2023.
Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Assistant City Clerk Diana Fuentes in City Council Chambers in downtown on June 13, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

This week, the Building Industry Association blasted the City Council for not approving the mayor’s Housing Action Package 2.0 after a fascinating meeting where the Council seemed to be actually genuinely deliberating policy in public.

“Decades of bad policies fueled this housing crisis, so standing in the way of modest reforms is not a good idea,” wrote Lori Pfeiler, the president and CEO of the BIA and Doug Austin CEO of AVRP Studios.

They positioned it as a classic “naysayers holding back progress” civic debacle but it was much more interesting than that. And some of what made the meeting so interesting has been in the works for years.

Background: As we wrote earlier in the week, a majority of the Council seemed to support the proposals in general. The policy package would have done a lot of things, including forcing some owners of land with non-compliant uses (say a junkyard in Barrio Logan on land that’s now zoned for housing) to sell or convert the land to housing. It would have changed some parking minimum requirements, helped universities find space for student housing and allowed developers to more easily convert shopping centers or gas stations into housing.

But Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and a crucial block of his colleagues had problems with two of the proposals. One would have eliminated developer impact fees on 3-bedroom units and put the fees back in place on studio apartments. The other would have allowed developers wider flexibility to invest in construction of affordable units in poorer communities, rather than on-site where they were being allowed to build bigger projects because of their commitment to creating affordable units.

Elo-Rivera made the motion to pass the package but he offered changes to what the staff proposed. It’s a sign of how unusual this was that we all referred to what he did as offer amendments. But they were not amendments. They were just his motion.

The motion as it was caught councilmembers off guard. Some expressed being taken aback.

As Councilwoman Marni Von Wilpert said, the changes felt like they were being done “on the fly.”

And that gets us to Elo-Rivera’s jarring comments that day.  

 “What I have seen in my experience,” said Elo-Rivera, “is that oftentimes very complex policy proposals will not come to us first for input about the general direction we would like things to go. This is not a knock at staff,” said Elo-Rivera. 

He went on: “To be frank I’m tired of that. We are the legislators and I want us to legislate.” He also said he deliberately held back the changes because he wanted the council to debate them free from input of major interests (which could also be read as “the public” as well, to be fair).

The updates: I called Elo-Rivera to check in about the backlash from not passing the package and to try to get more insight into what was going on here.

He said since he became Council president, he has deliberately tried to create ways to get the City Council to craft policy from the dais. It’s the whole point of open meetings, after all, to watch them deliberate. One of his main changes was to eliminate the practice of letting the maker of a motion decide whether to adopt suggested amendments to it. Now, if the maker of a motion doesn’t want to accept proposed amendments, the whole Council can decide whether to make them take the amendments.

“When there wasn’t a lot of incentive to accept that amendment, fewer amendments were put forward. It was frustrating to me,” he told me. “If city staff knows that amendments can be rejected so long as maker of motion doesn’t want them, there’s a lot less incentive or motivation for them to incorporation the input of councilmembers during the process.”

OK, about the package: Elo-Rivera said he would have been absolutely OK passing the rest of the package while they deliberated on a couple sticky issues. But he said maybe by rejecting the whole thing, they can work through the disagreements faster.

“It’s entirely possible that this gets fixed more quickly than it would have because none of us want all of the positive things that were almost universally agreed upon to be stuck or not move forward because of an important, but narrow, disagreement,” he said.

He said the mayor’s office and his office seem close to a deal.

“The legislative process is supposed to be messy and, it so happens, ours plays out in public. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make any policy that comes before us as good as it could possibly be,” he said.

Campbell’s Week: NIMBY Here, YIMBY There

Councilwoman Jen Campbell was against the package too but not because of the sticky points that held up Elo-Rivera and his allies. She just didn’t like it all. She said it was too soon since the earlier Complete Communities changes to say whether updates are already needed.

“The past changes have yet to be fully implemented and yet the city continues to modify contentious programs believing they will bring enough housing. I don’t think they will. Our residents need to know and understand what these programs are doing to our communities. Are they causing apartment buildings to be built in single-family backyards? Yes, in District 2 they are causing that to happen,” she said.

I asked her communications director, Elsa Sevilla, if they could give me examples of single-family backyards where apartment buildings were being built.

“Our office does not have access to examples of apartment buildings under construction in single-family backyards,” Sevilla wrote.

Not related, but sort of: This week, a couple hundred of Campbell’s constituents packed into the Point Loma Library to protest the mayor’s office’s plans to allow a safe camping or homeless shelter campus to come together at H Barracks near the airport. The land will go to the Pure Water project eventually but in the meantime, it could provide a safe place to be for hundreds of unhoused individuals.

It’s not in Point Loma but it’s just across the bridge from Liberty Station and the Point Lomans are quite upset.

Campbell is standing firm with the idea, though. “It will provide a temporary place where homeless individuals can receive wrap-around services, such as food, shelter, restrooms, laundry and shower facilities, case workers and housing navigators. The current Safe Parking Lots, Sleeping Lots, and Shelters are successful, and no issues have occurred in our programs. We expect the same for the H Barracks area.”

Concentration camp fans rejoiced: The Sunbreak Ranch lobby, led by artist and businessman George Mullen loved the Point Loma anger at the proposed homeless campus. They persuaded the Peninsula Community Planning Board to endorse the idea of a $275 million homeless concentration camp somewhere out in the desert (a plan the Marines rejected at Miramar).

“Momentum continues to build, folks,” Mullen boasted.


The requested retraction: Last week, I wrote about Councilman Stephen Whitburn’s 2021 push to make more locations available to cannabis retailers and how that looks in light of the charges against his former chief of staff, Jesus Cardenas. He wrote a response here, and then I wrote a response. We did end up with one final exchange.

Whitburn took issue with my describing his letter as a demand that I retract the piece.

“I am aware that people typically ‘demand’ a retraction. But in considering how I wanted to approach this with you, I deliberately chose not to demand anything. I see a significant difference in tone between requesting something and demanding something, and I specifically chose to request, not demand,” he wrote in an email.

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Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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  1. So not only did you lie about the quote, you also claimed he demanded a retraction but he never did that either. You’re lucky you run the paper, Scott, otherwise you’d certainly be fired.

  2. The growing pains of this city are being met with a bull in a China shop approach. My intuition tells me that the Gloria regime is misguided, incompetent and has no vision but they are totally in synch with political correctness. Smiechowski is a candidate for SD Mayor.

  3. How about asking Gloria and Rivera – What has all this up-zoning they are championing for developers and investors done to bring down the cost of housing. I think the data will show that it has increased property values and is pricing first time buyers out of the market.

    Or how many new projects being built are rentals vs property that can be purchased. San Diego is fast becoming a City of corporate and investor owned market rate rentals.

  4. You want examples of single-family backyards with apartment buildings in them?
    Check out 3242 Clairemont Mesa Blvd as well as both homes on either side. Also check out 4344 Gila Ave and 4566 Onondaga Ave. This was just from a few minutes of checking out online maps etc. There are more.

    1. Son! I’m an old man! Clairemont’s favorite son! I live nearby! Dan Smiechowski SD Mayoral candidate.

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