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Roundtable: San Diego's New YIMBY Mayor

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January 18, 2019 2:46 p.m.

GUESTS:

Andrew Bowen, KPBS News

Amita Sharma, KPBS News

Rob Nikolewski, San Diego Union-Tribune

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Related Story: Roundtable: San Diego's New YIMBY Mayor

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

The mayor wants more housing and he wants it in everyone's backyard.

When the very high rent on your small apartment suddenly gets much higher. What can you do. Help may be on the horizon.

And bankruptcy over wildfire liability looms for PGE the largest investor owned utility in California. What will this mean for San Diego. I'm Mark Sauer the KPBS roundtable starts now.

Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories I'm Mark Sauer. And joining me at the PBS roundtable today PBS metro reporter Andrew Boe and Rob Nichols esky energy reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune and investigative reporter Amit Sharma of PBS news. Well who was that guy. Twitter was a Twitter with that question following this week's State of the City address by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. The mayor didn't about face on housing restrictions saying it's time to strip anti housing forces of their power. And here's Faulkner explaining his transformation.

We must change from a city that shouts not my backyard to one that proclaims yes in my backyard.

From a city of NIMBYs to a city of Humvees Kevin Faulconer the young myth started there what are we talking about where do the agenda there.

So yeah. So Faulkner we heard is now really aligning himself with this movement that's spreading across the entire state to say yes to new housing that the big problem the biggest reason why housing is so unaffordable in California is that we have a growing population. We have a growing economy but we haven't grown in housing. So there are fewer homes for everyone to go around and and with competition among homebuyers and renters and everything. The price of housing and is going to is going to go up.

And so what those specific changes was he talking about here.

Yeah. So he made a couple of pretty ambitious proposals. I would say the most eye popping to me was he wants to eliminate height limits across the city in transit priority areas. So when you're close to a major bus stop or a trolley station there will be no limits. Under this plan on how tall buildings can King go. And so this would you know theoretically be very controversial among a lot of groups and encounter in San Diego. But it would really have a big impact on the amount of homes that a developer would be allowed to build near transit.

There are battles on that very issue lately in fact didn't fall back down not that long ago on that issue.

Yeah. So I mean you said about face I'm not sure that's entirely fair. I think Faulkner has always supported new housing. But but you know in our recent example where he lowered the height limit around a specific plan near a future trolley stop is one example of where he kind of backed down in the face of pressure from folks who didn't want to see that those taller buildings go up.

And one neighbor who was that was that clear month to this day.

So so. And we should also mention some of the other proposals that he included in his speech not just height limits but also allowing unlimited density for certain projects that include below market rate units or units for low income folks or people who are exiting homelessness. And he also mentioned a proposal that he had previously introduced and that should be heard by the City Council fairly soon on parking standards. So if you build projects near a major transit stop you won't be required to include any onsite parking and that's really meant meant to kind of provide an extra nudge to get people out of cars and help with the city's climate goals.

So I'm wondering I mean this is pretty huge. Why do you think this transformation has happened with the mayor and how much of it do you attribute to our new governor Gavin Newsom's position very stern position on withholding transportation dollars from communities who do not do enough to build housing.

Yeah. So a couple of things I think on on that proposal you know we have yet to see a lot of details but certainly I think there is a lot of pressure from the state on local governments to start approving more housing to sort of lower the bar of approval for housing to basically just the cities and counties have had almost unfettered control over their own land use and it's led us to this severe housing shortage across the state. And so there's absolutely a lot of pressure on on mayors like Faulkner and other mayors across the state to do that.

But on Unz I also think that Faulkner's kind of stepping into this bolder and more ambitious framework because he has two left two years left in his term. He's not going to have to run for re-election as mayor. Well we'll see whether or not he wants to run for higher office but this is really a proposal that is getting a lot of attention not just in San Diego but across the state. Certainly raising his profile.

And so I think that you know he sees this as the right time that you know the indie movement is growing and he thinks maybe it'll be on the right side of history and so he should join up with them.

Well we said the mayor expects opposition to going to be opposition here let's we got another bite from him. Let's hear what he has to say about this fight. And let me say I understand that some San Diego may fear homeless programs and affordable housing coming to their community but we cannot let fear control our actions.

Saying not in my backyard is saying yes to homelessness in our canyons or parks and on our streets.

All right. So that fight is coming. I did want to ask you specifically you mentioned around trolley stops and transit hubs and that's where he's pushing for the denser growth but there's some areas that are exempt along the coast road. Explain that right.

So in 1972 city voters passed Proposition D which set a 30 foot height limit in the coastal zone which is defined as west of Interstate 5 and north of downtown. So communities like Pacific Beach La Hoya Mission Beach the Midway district and point Loma all are exempt from any of these proposals and you know I think it's worth noting that this is one fight that Faulconer is not willing to have there. There are certain red lines that you don't cross as the mayor of San Diego and and folks both in the coastal communities and outside of them I think are really protective of that 30 foot height limit.

Now what sort of reaction have we gotten from the council and other reaction to his to the mayor's proposals in the community.

Yeah well I've heard. I spoke with Council President George Gomez after the speech. I would I would describe her response as encouraged but waiting to see more details. So you know Falconer has in the past in previous State of the City address is made some bold pronouncements and then things kind of either got watered down or he just wasn't able to build the kind of political support to get things done. And so you know she's she's waiting to see the details. I also spoke with to the two most prominent mayoral candidates right now and Todd Gloria a state assemblyman and former city councilman and Barbara Bria a city councilwoman and they both were hesitant to give then they are too much credit.

I think probably because they're running to replace them. And Todd Gloria said something interesting to me which I thought he said you know it's interesting and encouraging to see the mayor embracing proposals that previously he was not supportive of. So kind of a backhanded compliment there I guess.

All right. Just a few seconds left in this segment and we'll see where the devil is in the details as you say.

One other thing this week the mayor said no special election this year and expanding the downtown convention center so that's going to go off to the election year.

Yes that'll be. We'll have to wait till 2020 to vote on that measure. This would raise the hotel room tax to fund an expanded convention center and also some homeless services and affordable housing and infrastructure. So he I think he really wanted to vote on it this year but he saw the political reality of having six Democrats who on the city council who were not willing to just go along with his agenda no matter what. And and so you know he kind of let that left that aside and is you know still trying to get support for it in 2020 but we're not going to vote on it until then.

And one other thing. The mayor did a push for this this spy war site this big chunk of land near Old Town and you're talking about a big transit hub and we'll talk more about that on future shows. But that was really interesting in terms of getting the trolley and some shuttle extension to the Lindbergh Field right.

So yes this is happening at the same time that the airport is talking about expanding Terminal 1 which is in desperate need of expansion. Everyone agrees that but there there wasn't a willingness from the airport to analyze a trolley connection or a rail connection to the airport. And so he may have falconer and the new executive director of sandbag teamed up and came up with this plan to create a new transit hub on that Navy property that you mentioned and and we'll finally create this rail connection to the airport. So that's another thing we'll have to see a lot more details.

I think I mispronounced the spot where it's a war a war. But anyway we'll be talking more or more bites at that apple as we go on. Well we are going to move along. Forty years after Prop 13 capped property taxes is a movement not to limit rent increases as California home prices have soared in recent years. Rents have followed right along a huge factor of course is supply and demand. The myths start by telling us just how bad is it out there. The affordability for renters.

Well financial experts say that if you spend more than a third of your income on housing rent or mortgage that's considered to be a housing burden in California. That that that advice is particularly applicable in California where more than half of tenants pay. Over a third of their income on rent. And where more than a third of tenants in the state pay more than half so there they're severely burdened.

These in cities like San Diego you go up the coast Los Angeles to San Francisco area. Rents are just astronomical.

They are. I mean the median price of a one bedroom apartment in San Diego is nineteen hundred fifty dollars in Los Angeles. It's twenty four hundred dollars. And I think a one bedroom in San Francisco goes for about thirty five hundred dollars.

So you start thinking about people like teacher and cops and then anybody who has a job that doesn't pay very much perhaps a janitor a store clerk. How in the world do they live and I mean they have these people doing these jobs in San Francisco. How do they live on the floor.

Some people are working multiple jobs some people are doubling up some people are moving in with family mutually many miles or longer. But you know this might this this high cost of housing takes money away from other very basic very crucial expenses like food like medical care like dental care savings accounts retirement accounts saving for your college education your kid's college education. So I mean it's sucking money out of other again very crucial expense and just disposable income.

If you're paying you know 50 percent of your income on rent then you're probably not going out to eat in the restaurants in your neighborhood going now that Carnival effect on everything it affects the economy now your story focused also on these folks who experienced these sudden jumps in rent. Huge percentage increases are you doctor a young man in La Mesa for example I mean give us an example.

Yeah. I mean about a year ago he got and that is saying that his rent was going up about 30 percent and the reason that he was given was that the new landlords the new owners of the building wanted to install a sound system in his bathroom.

I mean he you know he laughed and he said look I don't know I don't need a sound system in my back and I don't need a rent increases the rent increase.

So he ended up finding another place which he thought was better and moved away but not everybody is in that position that can do that now.

So what can tenant to do about an exorbitant rent hike.

Well I spoke to a tenants rights lawyer who actually is the executive director of a group called tenants united and it's a coalition of tenants rights advocates up and down the state. And he said the way California law is written right now there is very very little that a tenant can do when the rent goes up that pretty much landlords in this state are free to raise the rent as much as they want.

All right. Now let's. That gets us into this idea about capping it. You talked on the phone with Scott Wiener a Democrat from San Francisco why he believes capping rent increases is a good idea.

Let's hear that that shortage is leading to displacement evictions people becoming homeless working families leaving young people not having stable housing until we get there. We need to take action to keep people stable in the housing that they have.

So so Weiner made the point that look the state is short about three point five million homes over the next decade and that's a housing crisis.

The mayor of Oakland Libby Schaaf said the same thing at a mayors forum back in November and the mayor of Los Angeles Eric R. said he said the same thing Libby Schaaf said look you know I would like to get our state legislators to say that we have a housing crisis. It's an Akin to an emergency. It's akin to a natural disaster. And there's very anti price gouging rules that kick in during a natural disaster should apply to the current housing crisis and what those rules look like is that you cannot raise the price on goods and services beyond 10 percent during a natural disaster any kind of emergency.

And she wants that rule to apply to apartment rents until the crisis is over.

All right where's Mayor Parker on this or are the leaders and you know I asked to interview him for this piece and he declined so I didn't get a sense of where he stands on that.

OK. Lot of forces against this I would imagine here. Who are the folks lining up with this against this idea of restricting rents in the crisis. Well.

I spoke to the head of tenants United which is the San Diego tenants advocate group. And Rafael Battista said he worries that if such a cap was passed by the state legislature that the effect would be from politicians that look we've got a rent cap it's around 10 percent. You don't need rent control. And he's saying so many people can't afford a 10 percent increase they can't afford a 5 percent increase. So what he makes the argument that what's really needed is true rent control where landlords are allowed to raise the rents maybe 1 to 3 percent every year.

I also spoke to the head of the apartment Association the organization or the landlords and that the head of that group Dan Fowler said No way. No this would be completely unfair. He calls it tenants welfare because he said what you're saying is that look tenants can afford to pay their rent. And so we ought to subsidize it. But you're asking a small group of people either landlords to subsidize their rent. So he says look if society thinks this is a good idea then it ought to be society that was subsidize.

Andrea I just wonder you know that that sort of hard line stance against even anti rent gouging laws probably comes from the results from last November when there was rent control on the ballot you know a measure that could allow cities and it and it was defeated really really astronomically.

60 percent I think it was voted against this instead of the landlords I imagine are feeling in much stronger negotiating position very strong negotiating position.

So the market sets the rates anywhere. Right. He was very clear about it.

He said it's just not fair. Let the markets that set the rate. He said that you know if the market couldn't tolerate these double sometimes triple digit rent increases that we hear about they wouldn't happen but they're happening because people will pay. And Governor Nixon announced this week that he is talking to realtors and landlords and state legislators about doing this precise thing getting an anti price gouging rent cap. He may not have used the terminology price gouging but in any case he's got a tough road ahead of him to negotiate that.

Yeah because a lot of opposition and a couple of seconds left. What did the landlord say about the housing crisis.

Do they really acknowledge that there is one and they say what needs to happen is that tenants wages need to go up and you know there is a apartment rents have gone up 20 percent in California since 2014. Wages have gone up 9 percent. How sustainable is that. Right.

But we do have score some some minimum wage increases and laws in San Diego and elsewhere and maybe that will address it. And another issue to watch movie for we're going to be a lot of interesting battles on that one where we're going to move on California's largest investor owned utility is going under facing estimated wildfire liabilities of 30 billion dollars. Pacific Gas and Electric says it will declare bankruptcy by month's end. Utility officials say the move won't impact delivery of electricity and gas to its 16 million northern California customers. It's an important story for San Diego a San Diego Gas and Electric has faced liability issues of its own.

So Rob start there with what fire investigators have found as they looked for the causes of these terrible wildfires in the last two years. Last year.

Well they found that in some cases some they've tried that some of the sparking of these fires to utilities. The camp fire which killed I believe 86 people in Northern California. Fourteen thousand homes and is still under investigation. And but there is some suspicion that PG&E is responsible for that so that the the larger issue about wildfires out of control wildfires especially in the last few years is really why we're in this position right now.

And that liability as we said it would extend certainly to the utility here and to Los Angeles across the state. Yeah.

There's something called it's rather unique to California. It's called inverse condemnation. And it's this concept a legal concept in which a utility even if it has followed all the prescribed safety rules if their equipment is tied to the ignition of a fire they are responsible for paying that. And that's something that is a rather unique to California.

All right. And we mentioned at the outset they're looking at 30 billion dollars and that's where they have to give notice that they're going to go to bankruptcy.

That's that's the number that's been bandied about. But that's it's just an estimate. Yeah exactly. It's kind of it's kind of a squishy number because we don't know for sure if those fires that the camp fire were definitely caused by PG&E equipment in the PG&E safety record already under scrutiny.

Yeah big story on a full year.

You've got you know going back to 2010 the San Bruno get natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people up in Northern California. There was also subsequent investigations that showed that maybe PG&E was was cooking the books and maybe obscuring some some data in regards to that that explosion. So PG&E has come under a lot of fire and it's been called a bad actor by a number of people especially politicians in Northern California in that public safety record how much sympathy is there for this declaration of bankruptcy. Well not much. That's the short answer.

PG&E especially in the state legislature in Northern California does not have a whole lot of sympathy for. But the larger question becomes if OK if you let PG&E if PG&E go through with this bankruptcy then what happens and what does that mean to ratepayers. Bills. And I talked to Gary Ackerman who's a former executive director of the Western Power Trading Association our trading forum. It's a group of members of a member group that trades power with Western states. And he says the idea that well we're just going to let PG&E go bankrupt might sound attractive and maybe somewhat satisfied in the short term.

But if PG&E goes under. Going back to the last time PG&E went under back in 2000 and won during the California energy crisis the the what is up happy in the long run was that investor owned that the the rate payers ended up paying more money in the long run. So there is there is a lot of moving pieces to this.

Yes it is a very complicated issue and it's going to play out over a long period time. The new governor Gavin Newsom says he's dealing with wildfires and utilities. He says that's a top priority for him.

I mean this the Democratic control obviously religiously you're gonna have to step in at some point here and come to some sort of consensus.

Well I think there's there's not a real clear path forward both when it comes to policy and also when it comes to the politics of this Jerry Hill who's a very who's from Northern California who's in the state legislature has been very critical of PG&E now that looks like PG&E is going to go ahead with this bankruptcy is taking more of a wait and see attitude. I think that a lot of the questions will get hashed out once if if PG&E does go through with this bankruptcy which they're expected to what the bankruptcy judge does.

It's sometimes it's kind of a fire sale so to speak.

Pretty bad you that bad term to use but it does bring another player in that bankruptcy judge is going to allow a lot of power right in this instance.

And the governor could if he steps in and becomes more forceful in this would have some say in this as well because the state could could stand up and say all right we may not think that PG&E has been a great actor but we will stand behind the investments that we've made here in order to protect them.

Well another actor in all of this to me is and of course many critics including YouTube's editorial board pointed this out. They say the problem has been the state Public Utilities Commission too cozy with the toys.

Explain just summarize some of the things that make questionable in the news with the PUC well the public utilities commission which its job is to oversee the air waves. Power companies are the watchdog but as you and I have discussed in the NEWSROOM they have often been accused of being a lapdog instead of a watchdog. There has there was a really just scathing report that came out a few years ago condemning the PUC for.

Basing its multi billion dollar decisions concerning the public utilities and not on evidence not on discussion and debate in the public sphere but on these private meetings with the energy companies. And that in the end it's the public who's paid the price. Now those those private meetings have been restricted a great deal but it has left a legacy of mistrust.

You know I wanted to bring up again we were talking about the new governor and all can we see a shakeup with the PUC. Do you think under under new some words that remain to be seen.

I think that remains to be seen and as I said before I think a lot of it depends on what the bankruptcy judge is able to lay out and also what PG&E provided that they do go through bankruptcy we're still not 100 percent they're going to do it it looks like it provided that they give a path forward and see what the bankruptcy judge says.

All right we've got about a minute left. I did want to ask you to bring this back around a San Diego Gas and Electric. They face the same kind of wildfire liability maybe not right now but the wildfires are just getting worse worse with climate change as we all know.

Exactly and I asked the people at Estes genie back on Monday when this PG&E story came out about what it meant for them and they said quote The circumstances of investor owned utilities are not the same across the board. This is distancing themselves from PG&E. And in fairness SD Genie has received some some praise for a number of things that they've been doing. They did energize their lines more often than the other investor owned utilities I've spent a billion dollars in investments and things like hardening the system putting steel poles instead of wooden poles.

They've invested a lot of money in a weather center that is able to anticipate fires and whether it was just a one off or not back in November when Southern California Edison and PG&E suffered a lot of traumatic wildfires. There weren't any here in San Diego. Maybe that was just a one off. But they point to there to the Weather Center and the other.

All right. All right we're out of time but we will pick this up is gonna be a long story and play out over many months to come. Well that does wrap up another week of stories at the PBS roundtable. I'd like to thank my guest Andrew Bohn of PBS news. Rob McClusky of the San Diego Union Tribune and Amita Sharma also of PBS. And a reminder all the stories we discussed today are available on our Web site PBS. ORG I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us today on the roundtable.