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San Diego's Affordable Housing Program Inspires Statewide Bill

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez speaks during a press conference announcing a bill to change the state's affordable housing density bonus law, Feb. 17, 2020.
Andrew Bowen
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez speaks during a press conference announcing a bill to change the state's affordable housing density bonus law, Feb. 17, 2020.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez on Monday unveiled two bills aimed at tackling different aspects of the state's housing crisis.

One bill would take a program credited with boosting home building in the city of San Diego and make it apply statewide. The program, approved by the City Council in 2016, gives developers a break on certain regulations if they set aside a higher portion of their homes for low-income households.

"Communities across California, including some here in San Diego County, can take a page from what was learned here in the city," said Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego. "This bill will provide developers the right kind of incentive to build affordable units we urgently need in California."


The state has had a "density bonus" law for decades, but its impact on home building was fairly limited.

The city's beefed-up version of the state density bonus law adds more options for developers to choose from. For example, under the city’s law developers can build 50% more units than would otherwise be allowed by increasing the number of on-site affordable homes. The current state law, however, allows for a bonus of no more than 35%.

Bill Would Expand San Diego Affordable Housing Program Statewide

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The pressure on state lawmakers to address the state's severe housing shortage intensified last month after the failure of a high-profile bill called SB 50. The bill would have required cities and counties to allow mid-rise apartment buildings near public transit stops and major jobs centers. After the bill failed, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins pledged to pass a major housing production bill before the end of the year.

Colin Parent, executive director of the nonprofit Circulate San Diego, said he expected Gonzalez's bill to have an easier time in the legislature because lawmakers are already familiar with the state's affordable housing density bonus law.


"We've got a system that already works in Sacramento," Parent said. "This change in the law would merely enhance elements of that program that's already there."

Circulate San Diego published a report in 2017 examining the first year of the city's enhanced density bonus program. The report found that in the decade before the new law was passed, only 36 developers submitted applications for the program. But in the eight months after it passed, 18 submitted applications for the new incentives.

RELATED: San Diego Council OKs ‘YIGBY’ Reforms For Housing On Church Parking Lots

Gonzalez unveiled a second bill Monday that targets housing segregation based on income. Developers would be prohibited from creating separate entrances for a project's low-income residents, and any shared amenities in a building would have to be available to all residents.

The bill was sparked by a proposed mixed-income development in the East Village called Pinnacle Pacific Heights. The developer behind the project sought to build a 32-story building of market-rate apartments adjacent to an eight-story building of affordable low-income apartments. The buildings would be connected by a bridge, but the low-income tenants would not have access to their wealthier neighbors' pool or roof deck.

It's not uncommon for developers to build their affordable homes in a building separate from their market-rate homes. This allows the affordable housing complex to qualify for state and federal tax credits that aren’t offered to projects where affordable and market-rate homes are mixed in the same building.

But the exclusion of the low-income tenants from the adjacent building's common areas drew fierce criticism from some officials. Civic San Diego, the nonprofit that until recently oversaw downtown development, twice rejected the project, prompting the developer to threaten a lawsuit. The two sides are now attempting to negotiate a compromise.

San Diego’s Affordable Housing Program Inspires Statewide Bill
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.