The San Diego region desperately needs more housing for families and individuals at all income levels. The shortage is most severe for lower income households.
But that’s not the only burden facing underrepresented communities. Disadvantaged communities, whether white, black or brown, are also disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. These communities already have the highest mortality rates due to heat waves—rates that are projected to grow sixteen-fold for African-Americans and twelve-fold for Latinos within our children’s lifetimes. Numerous studies show that low-income communities are also disproportionately affected by wildfires as they are unable to rebuild or relocate as easily as upper income households. Poverty is exacerbated in areas that are subject to frequent fires—areas like San Diego County’s backcountry.
Therefore, the best way to create a stable and equitable future for all San Diegans is to focus on solutions that improve housing supply and reduce the impacts of climate change at the same time. Measure A on the March 3 ballot will do just that.
Measure A gives San Diego County residents a voice in how and where housing is built in the unincorporated county. It makes it harder for profit-motivated special interests to build luxury housing developments far from where housing is most needed: close to transit, jobs, schools and services. A significant benefit of building housing in these areas is residents can take advantage of transit where it’s available and have shorter commutes by car where it’s not. The idea that we need to build large luxury housing developments in San Diego’s rural areas to address our region’s housing crisis is not just silly – it doesn’t make sense.
There are also real financial benefits for lower-income households to building housing closer to existing roads and transit. Transportation costs are the second highest expense for lower income households. Besides the environmental benefits, putting housing closer to jobs also lowers transportation costs. In San Diego County, transportation accounts for 21 percent of household budgets, but for working families, transportation can account for 30 percent of household budgets.
Here’s the reality: San Diego County’s current system for deciding how and where housing is built is broken. Today, a deep-pocketed developer can go to the Board of Supervisors and win three votes to build luxury suburban housing developments in rural areas zoned for farming or very low-density housing. Measure A will motivate developers to build the housing San Diego County residents really need where we most need it.
The reality is that affordable housing will be built more quickly with Measure A in place. In 1998, the City of Escondido passed a voter initiative that is very similar to Measure A. Proposition S puts developments that require changes to existing zoning before the voters.
In the years since Proposition S passed, construction of market-rate or affordable housing has not been slowed in Escondido. The opposite is true. Escondido out-performs the City of San Diego in building housing for all income levels, including low-income units. The experience in Escondido proves that once the rules are clear for developers, they stop trying to rig the system and instead start sticking to the zoning plans laid out in long-range land use plans.
Like Proposition S, Measure A will encourage developers to plan and build housing that is consistent with San Diego County’s General Plan. The plan calls for housing where schools, fire and police, roads and water services are already available. That kind of housing is more affordable by design than are mega-developments built far from existing services and infrastructure—which are the only developments that would trigger a vote under Measure A. Without Measure A, all San Diego County taxpayers end up subsidizing these sprawl luxury developments to help pay for new roads, fire stations, and other infrastructure. Those funds could instead be used to address other pressing needs faced by our low-income and working-class neighbors around the county.
The best part about Measure A is that it gives voters from disadvantaged communities an equal voice in land use decisions. Our current system is failing miserably in generating the amount and types of housing we need in the places we need it most. It’s time to try something new, especially when we’ve seen a similar system create improved results in a city right here in San Diego County.
Ruben Arizmendi is a lawyer, past chair of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, and past chair of Sierra Club California’s Executive Committee. Lori Saldaña is an educator and a former Chair of the California State Assembly Housing & Community Development committee.