May 27, 2019 - From the May, 2019 issue

San Diego Mayoral Candidate Barbara Bry on Addressing Affordability Without Devaluing Community Planning

Since San Diego Councilmember Barbara Bry's term began in December 2016, the city has updated two community plans, and will update three more in the next year. Believing strongly in the value of community input in the planning process, Bry is now a candidate for mayor of San Diego. In the following TPR interview, Bry discusses the challenges the ongoing housing crisis poses to her city; her opposition to SB 50 in favor of local planning; and her vision for dense, neighborhood-driven, transit-oriented communities in San Diego.


Barbara Bry

"I was opposed to SB 50. It was Wall Street-sponsored, YIMBY legislation. I view this as a fight to protect San Diego's neighborhoods." —Barbara Bry

State Senator Scott Wiener’s contentious housing bill, SB 50, was recently put on a two-year calendar by the State Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill would have given the state jurisdiction over local zoning and community planning by upzoning California’s residential zones to allow by-right densification along transit corridors. What was your position on this proposal?

Barbara Bry: I favor higher densities along transit corridors—yet I was opposed to SB 50. This was Wall-Street sponsored, YIMBY legislation, and even though it was held over till next year by the Senate, the trend is going to continue on.

I view this as a fight to protect our San Diego neighborhoods. I believe strongly that community planning should not be done from Sacramento. These decisions should be made locally, with input from residents, in a way that respects the unique character of each neighborhood. That is why an important part of my land-use and housing platform is updating community plans, which give certainty to both residents and developers about what is going to get built where.

San Diego has updated two community plans since I’ve been on the council. They didn’t make everybody happy, but everybody got to participate before we voted. We have three more big plans coming to us in the next year: Mission Valley, Kearny Mesa, and the Morena Boulevard. These are all transit corridors where I believe it is most likely appropriate to add more housing than is currently allowed.

During her tenure as San Diego Planning Director, Gail Goldberg authored the City of Villages concept for planning and development with livability standards. The impediment to the goal, as she recognized, was the lack of infrastructure investment to support density. Today, as the city of San Diego reviews its 2019-2020 budget, will sufficient infrastructure funding be available to allow for positive density in existing neighborhoods?

We need to find funding for infrastructure, especially in existing communities. The gas tax has helped us with roads, and we have developer fees on new construction. But for infill construction, the developer fees aren’t significant. My council district includes a new community called Pacific Highlands Ranch, whose creation was approved by the voters more than 20 years ago with a mandate for 20 percent affordable housing. We’ve been able to build a beautiful library, recreation center, and an elementary, middle, and high school here, all thanks to the developer fees we’ve received from the new construction. In an older community, it’s tougher.

We are working on figuring out a financing infrastructure for our older communities. But this is one reason I’m so concerned about Sacramento imposing things on us without providing the funding. If Sacramento wants us to build more housing, they should provide us with resources to accommodate it.

You’ve taken strong positions on housing issues on the San Diego City Council, including supporting reduced parking requirements, opposing short-term vacation rentals, and backing a proposal to prohibit absentee investors from converting homes into short-term rentals. Speak to the importance of these issues and why they’re part of your platform for mayor.

In recent years, we have seen around 10,000 homes in San Diego become permanent short-term vacation rentals. That is about 2 percent of our total housing stock. I am very concerned that we are losing housing for long-term residents—both renters and owners. If we don’t do something, more investors are going to come in to buy up more of our housing—single-family homes, whole apartment buildings, and condos—and turn them into mini-hotels.

Last August, San Diego passed legislation to limit short-term rentals to primary residences only. It would have allowed you to rent out a room in your house every night of the year, as long as you lived onsite, as well as to rent out your whole house on a short-term basis (anything less than 30 days) for up to 180 days a year. When we passed this motion, we anticipated that we would be sued by Airbnb, but we were confident we had written a legally sound ordinance.

What Airbnb did instead of suing us was to go out and collect signatures. It’s part of our city charter that if you collect signatures from a certain percentage of people who voted in the last election, you can force City Council to either rescind what they passed or put it on the next ballot. I would rather resolve this issue by legislation than by ballot measure, so I voted to rescind.

Once we are allowed to return to the issue (after October 15), I plan to bring something similar back. It may look a little different, based on my meetings with community stakeholders. But I am relentless about ensuring that San Diego puts our residents before our tourists.

Share your background and experience before joining the San Diego City Council two years ago, and how it informs your approach to city service.

Before I ran for City Council, I was an entrepreneur in the tech world and on the founding team of several companies in San Diego. The innovation economy driven by UC San Diego accounts for about a fourth of our local gross domestic product. It creates the highest-paying jobs, as well as good service-sector jobs around it. This world has to succeed if we are going to have a future tax base.

What has been missing in San Diego, to my mind, is a vision for the city. We’ve got todeliver all the basic services well (which we don’t do; that’s a whole other story), but we also need a vision. My vision comes out of my 30 years in the innovation economy and my long-term support for the arts. It’s called Full STEAM Ahead, and it’s about bringing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) to every neighborhood.

I view this as both an economic and environmental imperative. There are many levers that the city can use to get there, but the key is to create an technology and arts hub downtown. The traffic going north in the morning and south in the afternoon is horrible, and the reason is that the good jobs are in the north, while people are increasingly living in the south where it’s more affordable. To solve this problem, we have to create more high-paying jobs downtown.

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A major way the city can do this is through the redevelopment of our City Hall site. We own City Hall, Golden Hall, and the city operations building, and no one would disagree that they are dumps. The redevelopment of this underutilized but valuable land downtown would be a catalyst for the development of a technology and arts hub. That’s a key part of my vision for our city.

Share with our readers why an accomplished entrepreneur and civic leader like yourself would become a councilmember and even run for mayor.

I’ve lived in La Jolla fulltime since 1981. I first ran for City Council because I was upset that the street where my business office is located kept being being torn up to have the same work done over and over again.

When I got to City Hall, I saw a city that lurches from decision to decision with no long-term planning. I care a lot about this city, and I think we can do better. And I am driven to solve problems; it’s in my DNA.

I’m giving up a safe council seat to run for mayor. My first term ends in 2020; I could have run for a second term, and I think I would have had minimal opposition. But I’m an executive. I’ve led organizations, and I’ve been a leader in the business world. I believe my talents are better used leading the city.

A key challenge facing any city executive in California is homelessness. San Diego has the fourth largest homeless population in the United States. As a councilmember, and potentially as mayor, how would you address that challenge?

About 9,500 homeless individuals live in San Diego County, about 60 percent of whom live in the City of San Diego, and about 2,000 of whom are unsheltered. This is a human tragedy. It is also an example of an issue the city has previously dealt with without a long-term plan, good data, or accountability for outcomes.

We still don’t have, for example, a complete picture of what the city actually spends on homelessness. We run bridge shelters and storage centers. We have police overtime, which is buried in another budget. We have a Clean and Safe Streets program downtown and in the east village. In Balboa Park, we keep the restrooms open 24 hours a day with security and more frequent cleaning. We have security at many libraries. These are all costs of our very sad homelessness situation.

The first way I would deal with it is by making sure that I have all the data and understand all the costs. Then I would focus on providing the right services to each individual. People become homeless for different reasons: you may lose your job; you may come back from the Navy with PTSD; you may have an addiction issue; you may have left an abusive spouse. We have to treat each of these reasons individually. We also have to build more housing.

Just like in the rest of California, it is expensive to rent or buy a home here. And the kind of housing that we need to build—permanent supportive housing—is not something that the private sector is willing to do, so we are going to need to develop a public revenue stream. That includes accessing state money, which the council is likely to pursue through a bond measure on the November 2020 ballot.

Lastly, what do you see as the competitive advantages that define the city of San Diego?

San Diego is a great city with many competitive advantages. First, we have great talent working in the military, high tech and biotech, and tourism industries. Second, we have great universities, research institutes, and educational institutions that continue to produce this great talent.

This is the reason many Silicon Valley companies are now opening offices here. Apple is coming, with plans to hire more than 1,000 people. Google is here in a small way. Amazon came last year, Walmart’s technical team is here, and more will come. And they are coming to hire the great people who are already here, not to bring people in. That is important to our growth.

A third competitive advantage is our beautiful natural environment—which is why it is an economic imperative to preserve our open space. A fourth is our vibrant arts scene—we have great theater and wonderful opera and music—which is very important in attracting and retaining talent.

Fifth, I think our location on the border with Mexico is a competitive advantage. We have binational business and arts communities, and people live and work on both sides of the border. These five things are what make San Diego unique and position us to be a very successful city in the 21st century.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.