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Council Stands By San Diego’s Housing Plan

A construction site is shown in this undated photo.
Studio E Architects via Voice of San Diego
A construction site is shown in this undated photo.
The state’s housing department requested changes last month, and the vote confirms the City Council is confident the planning department’s tweaks will be enough to satisfy the request.

The San Diego City Council voted Tuesday to approve some modest changes to a state-mandated housing plan meant to demonstrate that city rules hypothetically allow private developers to build the 108,036 new homes the state says the city will need by 2029.

The state’s housing department requested changes last month, and the vote confirms the City Council is confident the planning department’s tweaks will be enough to satisfy the request. San Diego is in a tricky spot, because it’s the first city in California to adopt the required housing plan since recent changes went into effect.

Housing advocates from across the state called in to the Council meeting to argue the city’s changes were not enough to satisfy recent state laws meant to strengthen its decades-old housing supply law, which has failed throughout its existence to address the state’s housing crisis, as the Los Angeles Times revealed.

Housing advocates have focused on the fact that San Diego’s plan outlines all the places where new housing is likely to be built – based on zoning and development rules in place that allow for it – even though a passing look at those locations reveals that redevelopment is unlikely on many of them. Those sites include newly built grocery stores, recently redeveloped apartment complexes, a cemetery currently selling plots and the new, multimillion-dollar Copley-Price YMCA in City Heights, as multiple equity-focused nonprofits pointed out in a letter to the city demanding changes.

City planners brushed off those criticisms in a presentation to the Council, arguing they aren’t relying on every site being redeveloped as the plan prescribes, because city rules allow for 174,678 new units, giving them a 60,000-some unit buffer above their state housing target.

“Development might not occur on every site, but the zoning is there and we’re adding programs to facilitate infill development,” said Brian Schoenfisch, program manager in the city’s planning department.

Aaron Eckhouse, regional policy director for housing-advocacy group CA YIMBY, was among those who called in encouraging the Council not to adopt the changes. The problem isn’t that some of the sites identified in the city’s plan are unlikely to be developed, he argued, but that the city’s buffer between its target and capacity isn’t nearly large enough. That’s consistent with recent research from UCLA, which found cities would need to more than double the amount of housing permitted by their own rules to actually produce the housing the state assigns to them.

City staff and the Council spent much of the meeting praising themselves for their pro-housing record. They did not mention, though, that during the last eight-year cycle for the state’s housing law, the city issued permits for some 39,615 homes, far short of the 88,096 homes the state said it needed between 2013 and 2020.

That doesn’t just mean that the city – as the UCLA research suggested – built less than half of the new homes feasibly allowed by its zoning ordinance, or that the city would need to nearly triple that pace of homebuilding over the next eight years to meet its new target. It also means that even if the city achieved its annual peak from the last cycle in each of the next eight years, it would still be less than halfway to its target.

The Council approved the staff changes unanimously.

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit news organization.
Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit news organization.

Corrected:
Andrew Keatts is assistant editor and senior investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He can be reached directly at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.