San Diego Housing Crisis Forges New 'YIMBY' Alliance
San Diego's housing crisis can be measured in many different ways: rising rents and home prices, low vacancy rates or the soaring number of people living on the streets. Few dispute that the reason behind the crisis is a restricted housing supply. Production of new housing hasn't come close to keeping up with the region's growing population.
At the center of the debate over how and where to build new housing is density. And uniting around it are groups that are typically on opposite sides of the political spectrum: environmentalists and developers.
The unlikely bedfellows have coalesced recently under a new ad hoc group called Housing You Matters, and they have a list of policy goals to encourage denser development.
Cities often impose direct limitations on how dense new development can be — literally, how many housing units can be built per acre — or they can limit it indirectly through tools like setback requirements or height limits.
Fights over density have played out in North Park, where the city recently increased density limits, and in Encinitas, where voters on Election Day rejected a plan that would have allowed for more density.
Borre Winckel, president and CEO of the Building Industry Association of San Diego County, said the high burden of regulation is clearly stifling new housing development. And he said NIMBYs — a pejorative term that stands for "not in my backyard" and is meant to describe opponents to new development — are fighting to keep the system as it is.
"We are facing folks who are very anti-density," he said. "And density has become kind of a four-letter word, for reasons that are completely insincere. People are talking a great deal about wanting more housing, but not near them."
Winckel pointed to a plan by Habitat for Humanity to build 22 affordable housing units for veterans on an empty lot owned by the city of Poway. A number of residents mobilized against the plan, saying while they support affordable housing for veterans, the project was too expensive, would increase traffic and would not fit in with the neighborhood.
"I think when it's built, it's going to be an eyesore," Poway resident Tom Scott said at the Nov. 15 city council meeting. "You're not going to like what you see, and I think the density is too great. The lot's too small. And you're going have something you're not going to like."
The council voted 3 to 2 to reject the plan.
While opponents to the project rejected the NIMBY label, Winckel said the case was textbook.
"It's disgusting," he said. "NIMBYs are the greatest threat to densification. They don't want it, but they don't want it for any articulated reason other than self-interest. And I'm not buying that."
High-density housing is more profitable for developers, so it's not hard to understand why they support it. But there's a growing chorus of activists from other sectors who agree that density is the answer to many problems. Some have embraced the term YIMBY, for "yes in my backyard."
Nicole Capretz, head of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, sits alongside Winckel on the group's executive committee. She said the low-density sprawl of the San Diego region is the root cause of the region's biggest contributor to climate change: transportation.
"Our biggest carbon footprint comes from us driving to work," Capretz said. "As a result, when people are living miles away from where they're working, they're contributing, again, to the problem."
Capretz has advocated for building denser housing near public transit so more people can get around without a car. She admits environmentalists and the building industry have often been on opposing sides — which is why she said the new YIMBY alliance was far from inevitable.
"I think it took an intentional effort on the part of all of us to kind of set aside past differences, and maybe some remaining differences, and instead focus on ... where are we in alignment, and how can we best leverage that alignment?" Capretz said. "We are going to ensure housing sort of keeps rising to top of the public policy agenda for every elected official in the region, and they can see that it's not just one particular interest group or stakeholder that's at the table. It's the broader community."