October 27, 2023 - From the October, 2023 issue

San Diego Needs More Housing, but City’s ‘Shotgun Approach’ is Doing More Harm than Good

As the state of California continues its campaign to increase housing density at all costs and at the usurpation of local planning, many have begun to question not just whether the strategy will work, but whether incoming legislation might be setting the stage for even greater affordability challenges down the line. In this previously published opinion piece, which TPR shares with the permission, retired land use lawyer and planning consultant Cary Lowe and former San Diego city architect Michael Stepner outline the potential problems that many seem to be overlooking as we work through this statewide housing crisis.

Cary Lowe

"In the rush to address California’s severe housing shortage, we are abandoning fundamental principles of sound urban planning."

In the rush to address California’s severe housing shortage, we are abandoning fundamental principles of sound urban planning. From the governor and the Legislature down to local city and county governments, the focus is on creating broader opportunities for homebuilding. This seems necessary to meet the needs of our current and future residents. In the process, however, we risk losing sight of the high standards and long-range vision that have defined California planning for many years.

The greatest current controversy surrounds implementation of Senate Bill 10, a bill adopted by the Legislature last year, authorizing local governments to vastly increase residential densities within specified distances from transit lines. But the issue goes much deeper than that.

We are caught in a conundrum that has been many years in the making. In the booming, rapid-growth years of the latter half of the 20th century, California built housing at a pace commensurate with its population growth. Sprawling suburban development accommodated the housing needs of a steady stream of new residents.

But change became inevitable. The era of limits that Gov. Jerry Brown warned of in the 1970s caught up with us as we entered the current century. Cheap land, labor and materials that previously supported homebuilding all became more costly and less available. Environmental restrictions, coupled with growing anti-development attitudes, limited building locations. In the aftermath of Proposition 13, local governments imposed fees and exactions on new development to provide for the parks, schools and roads once viewed and financed as common benefits. And the need to ameliorate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions required that most new housing be in already-developed areas, where land and building costs are even higher.

While producing an average of 120,000 units annually from 1980 to 2010, we still fell 80,000 units a year short of meeting demand. Most years since then have seen even fewer units produced. The problem is especially acute in coastal areas, where population is concentrated.

Even worse, housing produced in recent decades has been mostly in the upper tier of the market. Demand for higher-cost housing is absorbing as many units as the market is producing, other than the relatively small number of lower-income units built with public subsidies. Virtually nothing is being built for the “missing middle.” Those are the homes needed for middle-class families, as well as persons entering the workforce (including our children) or providing vital services. With the costs of housing production making it relatively unprofitable to build anything else, it’s no wonder that developers concentrate on that upper tier. Notwithstanding the modest outflow of residents to states with cheaper housing, the magnitude of the problem remains staggering.

This is the reality that state and local governments face. In response, they have taken a shotgun approach to finding solutions: promoting accessory dwelling units, eliminating parking requirements, loosening height restrictions, waiving environmental reviews and other regulatory processes, allowing as many as 10 units on lots previously zoned for a single home. Most of these efforts so far have little to show in the way of significant new housing production when measured against the scale of the problem.

Admittedly, some may show greater promise over time. The problem meanwhile is that the scattered placement of larger, higher-density structures in currently lower-density neighborhoods will disrupt those neighborhoods while also creating a backlash against efforts to increase production.

Our cities do need to grow taller and denser, and many older neighborhoods will have an enhanced quality of life by becoming more walkable and less auto-dependent. Neighborhoods evolve, and good planning ensures that change will add value and improve quality of life.

To that end, local general plans should concentrate density directly along transportation corridors and around employment centers, and then gradually step it back into surrounding neighborhoods. Allowing it up to a mile from transit lines ignores our experience with public willingness to use transit. Upgraded neighborhood infrastructure must precede any appreciable increase in residents. Climate resiliency should be advanced through reduced paving and increased tree cover. Measures such as flexible zoning and design standards, leasing of surplus public land and down-payment assistance can aid in making new housing affordable. Enforcing state requirements for local fair-share allocation of new housing will ensure all jurisdictions do their part. And the impacted neighborhoods need to be engaged more effectively in the planning process if they are to accept, even support, gradual transformation.

For the future of our communities, our economy and especially our children, we should accept the need for much more housing and embrace the necessary changes, subject to quality planning. In the words of famed planner/architect John Nolen, “The most certain thing about planning is that it is a continuous process that must constantly adapt as the city grows.”


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.