By Dave Schwab
Is the city about to get serious about the problem?
Though it’s no longer an “emergency” the City Council reaffirms every month, the lack of affordable housing in Uptown, Mid-City, Mission Valley and throughout San Diego remains a serious problem community leaders continue to grapple with.
“We’re no longer declaring once a month that there’s an affordable housing emergency, because we realized doing that was symbolic and wasn’t really accomplishing anything,” said District 3 Councilman Todd Gloria, who represents much of Uptown and Downtown. “The council and the city are very much committed to [resolving] this issue. We have some big things planned for addressing this this calendar year, though there is a substantial amount of work to be done.”
“Affordable housing is a problem, and it’s been a problem for years and we’ve seen it coming,” said Vicki Granowitz, chair of the North Park Planning Committee. “That’s why we’ve supported all the affordable projects that have come to us.”
Granowitz said North Park community planners have tried to alleviate the housing shortfall by approving more “affordable and workforce housing.”
“We traditionally think of affordable housing as low-income housing, but that doesn’t consider lower market rate-housing, which is harder to get now because rents with the new [high-rise] buildings that are going in are much higher than we’d prefer,” Granowitz said.
That San Diego is one of the increasingly more expensive places in the nation — and state — to live is indisputable.
In an August 2015 report from the California Housing Partnership Corp. (CHPC), a San Diego renter household needs to earn more than three times the state minimum wage in order to afford average asking rents. The report showed that inflation-adjusted median rents in San Diego County increased 25 percent from 2000 to 2013, while inflation-adjusted median renter household income declined 4 percent.
That report also concluded San Diego County needs 142,564 additional affordable rental homes to meet the needs of its extremely low income (ELI) and very low-income (VLI) renters.
“The vast majority of San Diego County’s low-income renters spend more than 50 percent of income on rent, leaving little left for food, transportation and health care,” said the CHPC report, which also determined that, when housing and other costs of living are factored in, San Diego County’s poverty rate rises from 14.5 percent to 21.7 percent: about one in five people.
Overcrowding for low-income renters in San Diego County is also 50 percent above the national average, contributing significantly to poor health and academic achievement among low-income children.
Plus, reductions in federal and state funds, including elimination of redevelopment funding, have reduced San Diego County’s affordable housing funding by over $139 million since 2008, a 67 percent reduction.
“What I’m hearing from my constituents is that they feel squeezed,” Gloria said about today’s real-life situation for lower-income renters. “They are dealing with stagnant wages and that, coupled with rising energy, water, food and housing costs, is a lot for them to absorb.”
Gloria added many Mid-City residents, who used to get a rent break because their housing was 40-plus years old, are benefiting no longer because housing construction has lagged behind.
“Landlords are now able to ask for top-dollar rents in the market, even in buildings that are older and have been considered less desirable,” Gloria said.
In Kensington and Talmadge, community planners strongly support the theory of the City of Villages, wherein denser housing is concentrated along easily-accessible bus, trolley, train and bicycling corridors.
“They [planners] certainly view it [Villages] as an improvement over the older development model,” said David Moty, chair of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group.
But Moty acknowledged that housing density and affordability remain “touchy” subjects.
“What makes dense, affordable housing an issue is the lack of supportive public infrastructure,” he said. “For years the city has plead poverty for why infrastructure couldn’t be built. But even when other government agencies have stepped up to pay, the city has turned away infrastructure from our communities.”
Moty said he and some others “have lost all confidence in the city’s ability to build what we really need to solve our problems versus spending our infrastructure money on what’s easy for them to push through the system. Why grow your community by a quarter or a third, when the only improvements you’ll ever see are a bunch of corner sidewalk ramps?” he asked.
Granowitz noted one way North Park planners are encouraging development of more affordable housing is to encourage developers to “put their affordable units in their projects, rather than pay in-lieu fees. We believe that spreads out the affordable units through the newer developments.”
North Park also “solidly supports” the City of Villages concept embraced by the city, Granowitz said.
“The plan is to put your density in your major transportation corridors,” she said. “We want our higher densities on Park and El Cajon boulevards, where there is better Rapid Bus and other transit. If you want to increase pedestrian and bike uses, and get people out of cars, you need to have pockets of high-density.”
Gloria said part of what needs to be done to address housing shortfalls is to lay the groundwork for setting — and accomplishing — the goal of creating more affordable units through the community plan update process.
“Right now we’re involved in updating community plans in both North Park and Golden Hill,” Gloria said. “What those community plans do when they’re updated is to create a general consensus of what the communities want done in their neighborhoods.”
Uptown planners are also updating the community plan for Bankers Hill, Park West, Hillcrest, Mission Hills, Medical District, Middletown and the western half of University Heights. The eastern half of University Heights is part of the North Park planning group, with Park Boulevard being the dividing line.
Updated community plans give authorities a new blueprint to work from when planning for things, including needed upgrades to affordable housing. Gloria noted a lot of current Mid-City redevelopment is occurring within mixed-use developments, with retail on the ground floor and housing above, in multi-story projects like those being built along El Cajon Boulevard.
In December 2015, the City Council’s Smart Growth and Land Use Committee (SGLUC) unanimously voted to have staff study and report back on a series of proposals designed to alleviate San Diego’s lack of affordable housing.
The San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) presented SGLUC with 11 ideas that would require government action at the local, state and federal levels, to address the need for more affordable housing. The suggestions generally involve lowering costs for developers, because government red tape often makes it more expensive to build affordable housing projects, according to building industry leaders.
Among the commission’s proposals:
- Setting annual goals for producing affordable housing
- Providing incentives for developers to make at least 20 percent of their housing units affordable
- Lowering parking requirements
- Reducing requirements for ground-floor commercial space, which raises project costs
- Shortening the time it takes to process permits and entitle properties
- Supporting efforts to reform the California Environmental Quality Act
“The majority of all these, to me, make a whole bunch of common sense on how to get the cost down so we can actually provide more doors and more units for people,” District 7 Councilman Scott Sherman, who represents Mission Valley, has said, adding that “affordable housing costs so much more than market-rate (projects). We can put so many more doors onto the market if we cut into the costs.”
City staff was directed by SGLUC to come back soon with proposed ordinances, resolutions and lobbying efforts to help implement SDHC’s proposals.
Regarding affordable housing, Gloria concluded, “This is a crisis. We [the city] are looking to do whatever we can to try and help.”
— Dave Schwab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.