How the fight against climate change is exacerbating San Diego’s affordable housing crisis
Environmental laws make backcountry developments all but impossible, while developers say urban projects often don’t pencil out
The San Diego region is on the front lines of a statewide push to abandon suburban development in favor of building denser urban communities — a vision many California leaders have called for to curb greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.
Forcing existing neighborhoods, however, to shoulder increasingly more development is proving expensive and slow at a time when San Diego and many other regions are suffering a severe lack of affordable housing.
Home builders have constructed less than half of the total housing units the region targeted for this decade, roughly 67,000 out of nearly 162,000, according to the San Diego Association of Governments’ regional housing needs assessment. Of those about 76 percent were considered out of reach for families making less than $95,000 a year.
In response, some local leaders have called for a return to the days of widening highways and building large master-planned communities far from urban job centers. The county is currently pushing a number of new backcountry projects totaling more than 10,000 new units — the latest of which, Adara at Otay Ranch, comes before the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.
Such an approach faces significant obstacles under California’s increasingly strict laws on climate pollution. The Sierra Club and other green groups are not only challenging individual projects in court, but they convinced a Superior Court judge last winter to strike down a carbon offset scheme the county devised to allow developers to sidestep restrictions on generating new greenhouse gases from vehicle trips. The county has appealed the ruling.
Sierra Club San Diego President Peter Andersen said developers have been trying to negotiate with his group like never before, often reaching out to him multiple times a week.
“We feel like we’re in a strong position,” he said, adding: “All these developers want to meet with us, and we’re always open to meet. Talk is easy. Coming to an agreement is a little bit harder.”
Andersen, like many environmentalists, has argued that adequate housing can be provided within urban areas, especially around bus and trolley stops.
“While we don’t necessarily favor state laws that impose huge developments on communities, there’s plenty of good projects that can be built around transit,” he said. “You don’t need to build them north of Escondido or east of Jamul for crying out loud.”
That type of urban development has yet to materialize, at least not fast enough to bring down housing prices.
Some developers have expressed optimism about the potential for growth along the Mid-Coast Trolley extension from downtown to University City slated to open in 2021.
“We feel like we’re in a strong position. All these developers want to meet with us, and we’re always open to meet.”
Experts say it’s unclear whether regions like San Diego will be able to address the crisis in coming decades, but building new rail lines to attract housing development along commuter corridors might be the key.
“If you run a rail line and you get new development, you could have suburbia without suburban sprawl,” said Jonathan Zasloff, a professor at UCLA School of Law who specializes in land use issues.
SANDAG’s new executive director Hasan Ikhrata has proposed building hundreds of miles of new rail line, akin to San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART system.
However, the same officials pushing new backcountry development, such as supervisors Jim Desmond and Kristin Gaspar, have also been skeptical of the multibillion-dollar blueprint for transit SANDAG as laid out. They would rather focus on widening highways, such as state routes 78 and 56, to address traffic concerns and accommodate new housing growth.
Ikhrata has countered that widening freeways would undermine the region’s chances to meet state targets for capping driving, set out by the California Air Resources Board.
SANDAG is also doubling down on its commitment to build new housing in urban areas. Elected officials on the agency’s board have drafted a blueprint that calls for more than 171,000 to be built between 2021 and 2029, strapping cities that have the most transit and jobs with the highest housing targets.
Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who chairs the SANDAG’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment Subcommittee, said the shift is needed to promote economically diverse neighborhoods.
“Vibrant healthy communities provide housing for people at all income levels,” she said. “We need people who work in the local shops and cleaning people’s yards to be able to live in our community.
“If you just become an upper-income rich enclave,” she added, “you’re not as healthy, not as vital.”
In the meantime, San Diego is now leading a major slump in home buildingthroughout Southern California, driven largely by a decline in apartment construction. In the first three months of the year, developers in San Diego County pulled permits for just 556 multifamily homes — a 70 percent decline from 2018.
Many projects can’t fetch high enough rents to pencil out in San Diego County, said Alan Nevin, a development consultant for Xpera Group.
“We have opportunities along the rail and not just the north rail,” he said. “There’s enormous opportunities along the south rail and east rail, and it’s just not happening.”
Many factors go into how expensive a project ends up being — from neighborhood opposition to the cost of construction to permitting fees — but one of the most important, according to experts, is the cost of purchasing land.
Housing industry leaders have argued that as efforts to fight climate change have put more countryside off limits, the spaces to build within existing urban neighborhoods have become more expensive to acquire.
“While it’s well intended from an environmental protection perspective, when you reduce the amount of available land that can be built on, the price of the land goes up,” said Dan Dunmoyer, president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association.
“You’ve still got 90 percent of the state untouched,” he added. “Can we not use more of it?”
New suburban development should be off the table if local leaders are serious about meeting the state’s climate goals and preventing homes from being constructed in wildfire-prone areas, said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, who studies the intersection between environmental regulations and land use.
“It’s easier to build a Rancho Bernardo type project,” he said, “but look at the wildfire impacts and the traffic and air pollution they cause.
Elkind recognizes the challenges of building in existing urban areas, often called in-fill development, but he said the state needs to figure out how to streamline the process as fast as possible.
“We’ve made it harder to build sprawl, which is a good thing,” he said, “but we have yet to correspondingly relieve the barriers on in-fill development. We have to grow somewhere or we will just have the uber-wealthy who can afford to live in an increasingly rare supply of homes.”
Part of the challenge of building urban in-fill is practical. When you set out to construct a five-story apartment building on a city corner in San Diego a host of complications can pop up, from aging sewage lines to permitting delays at City Hall to angry neighbors.
“When you’re out in a green field development, you’re basically calling the shots. You’re laying down the roads. You’re laying down the utilities,” said Marcela Escobar-Eck, a land use consultant with the Atlantis Group. “When you’re in an in-fill situation, you’re inheriting some incredibly complex utilities that already exist in the ground, and in some cases you find some surprises when you dig things up.”
State lawmakers and local politicians have attempted to address the issue in several ways.
In March, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer waved city parking requirements for apartment buildings within a half-mile of public transit stops. The city has also in recent years undertaken a lengthy campaign to ease height and density restrictions in its most urban areas. However, elected leaders have frequently backed off in the face of staunch neighborhood opposition.
Similar scenarios have been playing out across the state, from Southern California to the Bay Area, with those blocking development being labeled, NIMBY, or Not in My Back Yard. This has frustrated environmental groups and affordable housing advocates as well as the development community.
“NIMBYism is very nonpartisan,” said Dunmoyer of the Building Industry Association. “It’s in Orange County. It’s in the most liberal areas of San Francisco. It’s everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rightwing Trumper or a Berniecrat, you don’t like people building next to you.”
To address this political conundrum, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, has made it his mission to pass a bill that gives developers leverage over community opposition.
Most recently, Wiener saw his Senate Bill 50 put on ice following push back from organized suburban homeowners. The legislation would have automatically rezoned areas around transit stops to allow for mid-rise apartment buildings and cleared the way for fourplexes in currently single-family home neighborhoods.
Many believe such legislation has little chance of passing in the future without full-throated support from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.
California has built about 100,000 homes a year over the last decade, down from upwards of 300,000 units historically, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development. State officials estimate that annual production will have to double in coming years to keep pace with population growth and meet back demand.