With ‘Complete Communities,’ Faulconer Pushes One Final Affordable Housing Plan
Friday, November 6, 2020
Photo by Matthew Bowler
The San Diego City Council on Monday will consider Mayor Kevin Faulconer's last major policy proposal before he leaves office next month: a new incentive program aimed at building more affordable housing, reducing car dependence and providing more resources to low-income communities.
The package of proposals is called Complete Communities, and it's the result of a pledge Faulconer made in last year's State of the City address to scrap limits on height and density for housing projects near public transit stops.
"We must change from a city that shouts, 'Not in My Backyard,' to one that proclaims: 'Yes In My Backyard' — from a city of NIMBYs to a city of YIMBYs!" Faulconer said in his January, 2019 speech.
The details of Complete Communities don't exactly match Faulconer's lofty rhetoric, and portions have been scaled back in response to criticism from some residents and city councilmembers. Still, supporters say it would add even more incentives for developers to build the right kind of housing in the right places.
The program is optional for developers, and it applies only to land already zoned for apartments or condos. To participate, developers must set aside 40% of the units allowed under normal zoning rules as affordable to low- and moderate-income households. That increased from 20% under the original proposal.
In addition, no homes built under the program could be used as short-term rentals like those on Airbnb. Buildings exceeding 95 feet would also require a more cumbersome approval process. And while a new building technically would not be limited in height, its size would still be regulated by square footage of floor space. In other words, the taller a building becomes, the skinnier it would have to be.
In exchange for meeting those requirements, developers would be allowed to pack as many apartments into a project as they can fit. They would also be able to pay development impact fees based on total square footage, rather than the number of homes in their project. This would give developers a break if they build smaller, more naturally affordable homes rather than bigger luxury units.
Complete Communities has won strong support from a cadre of small-scale infill developers — among them, Rammy Cortez, who said it's another way to encourage sustainable growth and discourage sprawl.
"We have to grow as a city, and we can’t just take a NIMBY approach to leapfrog development like you see in Arizona or Riverside," Cortez said. "To meet our greenhouse gas goals, the only way we’re going to be able to get there is to ... walk, bike and use alternative modes of transportation."
Transportation is another part of the package: Developers who build in the city's more suburban, car-dependent neighborhoods would pay new fees that would cover things like bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks in denser, more urban neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is an ongoing funding stream for such improvements, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
The final component of the proposal is an update to the city's Parks Master Plan that would assess park needs based on quality and amenities rather than mere size. The parks component also seeks to prioritize improvements in low-income neighborhoods.
Perhaps the greatest opposition to Complete Communities has come from the city's volunteer neighborhood planning groups. Diane Kane of the La Jolla Planning Association likened the program's housing component to a Trojan Horse rezoning plan.
"If you look at the maps, there's all of these disclaimers about how this isn't a rezone," Kane said at a Monday meeting of the Community Planners Committee (CPC), which comprises the chairs of the city's 42 community planning groups. "But it is a rezone, and the people whose parcels are being rezoned don't even know it."
CPC chair Wally Wulfeck of Scripps Ranch said he thought it was unfair that a portion of the fees developers pay to build in his neighborhood would be sent to low-income communities.
"All of us agree that we ought to find a way to provide more funds for impacted communities," Wulfeck said. "But this does it by essentially robbing other communities of their impact fees."
Wulfeck added that he felt the outreach process — which began roughly a year ago — was rushed.
"None of these plans should go forward until there has been sufficient consultation with community planning groups and CPC," he said. "And that still hasn't really happened. It's sort of been like pulling teeth to get anyone to bother to talk to us."
City officials have defended their outreach efforts — two planning department staffers spent an hour at Monday's CPC meeting explaining the latest revisions to the program and answering questions. They also point to the dozens of workshops and presentations at public meetings over the past year as evidence that they did enough outreach.
Earlier versions of the Complete Communities package have gotten mixed reviews from city councilmembers. Monday's meeting will determine whether the recent revisions are enough to convince a council majority to enact the program into law.
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