While San Diego rents and home prices are starting to come down, Zillow said the region is still the fifth least affordable in the nation. It’s also the seventh least affordable for renting compared to an average income.
That’s bringing things to a boiling point for many middle-income workers, who lack housing options.
“Many feel like they may not ever be able to afford a home in San Diego in the communities where they work,” said California Teachers Association Director Kisha Borden.
The union leader represents educators across San Diego and Imperial Counties. She said the lack of affordable housing is contributing to a teacher shortage.
“We're also seeing our families having to move as well,” Borden said.
That’s leading to a new reality for schools across the county.
“We're seeing a decline in enrollment because families simply can't afford to live here, while the school districts in East County, many times, are seeing an increase in enrollment,” she said.
Due to staffing shortages, some local school districts are taking matters into their own hands by looking to build more affordable homes on their land.
“If our school districts are able to provide some of that housing for their employees, I think all the better. Hopefully if this is something that can spread to other districts, San Diego Unified was able to pass a bond in order to build housing,” Borden said.
Similar staffing shortages are affecting other essential fields in San Diego, including police and medical staff.
“There's a point in everybody's life where they'd like to be a homeowner,” said Muhammad Alameldin, a policy associate at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.
Alameldin said moderate-income workers make up a significant portion of the population statewide, and they're having trouble affording to live where they work.
“Number one: Rents are too high, and this is what's leading to people leaving the state; number two: Homeownership is inaccessible,” he said.
Alameldin said zoning is part of the issue. He said 70% of urban land in California is zoned for single-family housing, which makes the cost of living pricey.
A new style of housing construction is needed — that's where workforce-housing comes into play, according to Alameldin.
“It would be placed in a way where its duplexes and triplexes or cottage clusters — basically a bunch of housing units surrounded around a court. Really the housing archetypes that were very popular before the 1950s,” he said.
The housing policy associate said the smaller floor plans and denser construction in multi-family housing are what make renting and buying more affordable, because they lower land costs per unit.
While new construction can take a while, middle-income housing doesn't all have to be new buildings.
“We could essentially take market rate multi-family housing projects and convert them to middle-income projects,” said Sean Rawson, co-founder of Waterford Property Company.
His organization converts existing properties through a combination of bonds and property tax exemptions. Rawson said those exemptions have caused some controversy in the state over lost revenue for cities, but the program works.
Waterford has such a project underway with hundreds of units in Escondido.
“We've lowered rents 18% across the board from where they were,” Rawson said. “What that translates into, is that we now have about $800 monthly savings to our tenants.”
The city of San Diego hasn’t yet explored that program, but they have been offering incentives to build middle-income housing.
Still, very few developers are taking advantage of the opportunity. In 2021 the city only built 19 middle-income units.
“While we have produced thousands of low-income units, and we've produced tens of thousands of luxury units, we've really provided just a couple dozen middle-income units,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said. “That's the main challenge for people who are looking at this housing market and really trying to decide whether not to stay or to go.”
Gloria said he established a middle-income housing working group in 2021, and they’ve helped craft upcoming policy change.
He said some workforce housing is starting to be built now, and he’s also considering middle-income housing units that have limits on the rent or sales price.
“Well increasingly what we're talking about are sizable units in multi-family developments near transit and jobs — that is a difference for us. But without those kinds of units, we will never be able to solve this problem,” Gloria said.
Alameldin said San Diego needs to lean into workforce housing construction like it has committed to building accessory dwelling units.
“It's going to take 20 years unless there's really big radical changes that happen in California,” he said.
Alameldin said those changes would affect zoning, building codes and developer fees among other policy updates.
“The housing crisis has been solved in the United States before after World War II, and it has been solved in multiple other countries,” he said. “We don't reinvent the wheel but we look at what works and we replicate it.”
Gloria will bring his second Housing Action Package to the City Council later this spring.
The mayor said it will have 11 additional policy reforms that include incentives to build more affordable family-sized housing units of three bedrooms or larger.
It will also include implementation of Senate Bill 10, which makes it easier to zone for smaller, lower-cost housing developments of up to 10 units.
California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans held a meeting in San Diego over the weekend.
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