Eroding the Quality and Character of San Diego

| December 4, 2023 | 0 Comments

By Patty Ducey-Brooks (with content from Ben Christopher/CalMatters)

I am truly tired of having to make “the housing crisis” the focus of my articles on a regular basis.  However, what is being “forced on our lives” by our elected officials and certain governmental representatives is appalling.

The reason is, we have a pro-density mayor currently in office who has made this his primary platform and seeks attention regionally and nationally for his efforts to build housing at any cost. Recently, Gloria enjoyed speaking to builders, housing financiers, politicians and academics gathered at a conference where most of the programming served as an unofficial advertisement for the host city’s ADU program. 

Because I think it’s very relevant and well stated, I’ve elected to include editorial and commentary from CalMatters, which is identified as a nonpartisan and nonprofit news organization bringing Californians stories that probe, explain and explore solutions to quality-of-life issues while holding our leaders accountable.

According to Ben Christopher, a reporter with CalMatters, “San Diego has hacked the state housing law to build ADU apartment buildings.” 

In his recent update on the topic, Christopher states, “In the minds of most Californians, accessory dwelling units — ADUs, short — bring to mind words like small, subtle and cute. However, none of which describe the side-by-side ADU duplexes on E Street in Golden Hills, which are perched at the edge of San Diego’s desirable Golden Hill neighborhood, there’s nothing dainty or diminutive about these three-story structures.”

He added, like dozens of small and not-so-small apartment buildings across San Diego, the structures on E Street are ADUs in only one way: They were permitted under the city’s ADU Bonus Program. 

The city’s one-of-a-kind ordinance offers landlords a one-for-one deal. If they agree to construct an ADU and keep the rent low enough for San Diegans making under a certain income, they’re automatically permitted to build a second “bonus” unit, which they can rent at whatever price they like. 

In parts of the city far from public transit, the 2021 city program offers a one-off: Alongside the main house and the two ADUs already permitted under state law, the city allows for a maximum of five units on one property.

But in bus-and train-adjacent “transit priority” areas, a designation that covers much of San Diego’s urban core, a landlord can alternate affordable and bonus units again and again and again. Technically, there are limits. City zoning set a maximum height on buildings, and a more complicated regulatory formula caps how much built floorspace can dominate a parcel. 

You can squeeze in an awful lot of ADUs within those parameters. Hence, the project on E Street: A single family lot with nine apartment units on it, four of them ADUs, two of them affordable. And that’s not an especially extravagant use of the program.

David Pearson, according to Christopher, whose design shop, PALO, designed the E Street duplexes, said his largest permitted project, located behind an existing 76-unit apartment building, comes with 36 “ADUs.”

There’s a word for 36 units stacked in row on top of one another. Even Pearson can’t help but grin and use scare quotes when he uses the term “ADU.” The city’s “crafty little maneuver” allows developers to “effectively build an apartment building out of ADUs.” 

“It’s really ADUs only in name,” Pearson said. 

Depending on your perspective, San Diego’s “crafty little maneuver” is either an ingeniously clever use of state law to provide a much-needed boost to the local housing supply or a sneak effort to foist an intolerable degree of construction and density upon unsuspecting residents while only providing a token degree of affordability. 

The program is just beginning to take off. A total of 159 projects with 1,200 units have been submitted to the city, as of October.

Local economics play a role, too. In San Diego, the median apartment rent of $2,700 a month is less than $400 over the maximum allowable rent for a state-designated affordable apartment in San Diego County.

Geoff Hueter, a founding member of Neighbors for a Better San Diego, who was also interviewed for this coverage, was asked what he thought of the city’s bonus ADU program. His succinct response was, “It’s bad policy.”

The most popular argument of all against the city’s ADU program is the claim that the resulting units aren’t “truly” affordable.

In College Area, the residential neighborhood anchored around San Diego State University, a newly built ADU may rent for a little more than $3,000. The “affordable” units are cheaper, but not much. To qualify for the program, rent can’t exceed 30 percent of the monthly paycheck of someone earning 110 percent of the county’s median income.

As Christopher shared, that equals $2,249 per month for a studio.

And unlike traditional affordable housing, which has to be set aside at those lower rates for 55 years, the bonus ADU program only requires a 15-year commitment. If a landlord lowers the rent further to someone earning 80 percent of the typical area income, the commitment is only 10 years. 

As other members of the community weigh in on the CalMatters article, Nico Calavita, Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University, offered his comments.

“There is no mention of how the ADU program increases the sale price of existing homes and destroys backyard open space, especially trees. From a letter to the New York Times of November 24: Trees “not only can reduce global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide. They also provide homes for wildlife, clean the air, prevent soil erosion, shade and beautify the land and, most important, produce a significant portion of the oxygen that animals (including humans) need to live. I would add that backyard open space allows for rainwater to recharge aquifers and reduce runoff.”

He added, “I don’t think that any of these projects is in a high resource area. Affirmatively furthering segregation?”

Unfortunately, that statement won’t get the attention of our current mayor, because he doesn’t care about inequity.  

I do again want to acknowledge Ben Christopher of CalMatters for doing an impressive job of covering this topic that continues to create great controversy among residents and communities in the city of San Diego.  It is obvious to see how the mayor has allowed, as Christopher stated, “for San Diego to hack the state housing law to build ADU apartment buildings” …and at what cost to the quality of life for San Diegans.

The project on E Street in Golden Hills is a single-family lot with nine apartment units on it, four of them ADUs, two of them affordable. Photo is courtesy of Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters.


Category: Architecture, feature, Government, Housing, Local News

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