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Despite city initiatives, San Diego sees major drop in affordable housing unit permits

Despite programs to spur affordable housing development, the number of affordable housing units has seen a sharp decline.

SAN DIEGO — In the throes of a housing crisis and surging rent prices, the city of San Diego saw a steep decline in the number of permits it issued for housing units dedicated to lower-income individuals and families last year.

According to data from the California Department of Housing, the city issued 451 permits for very low to low-income housing units in 2021, the lowest number since 2018 and a fraction of the 1,254 very low to low housing units that were permitted in 2020. 

In addition to dropping housing units for low and very low-income earners, local developers in San Diego continue to build market-rate housing for those earning more than San Diego's median income, which is $106,900 a year.

State housing data shows that permits for above moderate income earners, which means those making more than 120% of the median annual income, remained steady since 2019.

The decline raises concerns about the city's ability to increase the affordable housing stock, and its means to meet affordable housing requirements set by the state.  

Very Low Income Housing

According to the San Diego Housing Commission, very-low-income units are for those who earn 50 percent of the median income, which for a single individual means an annual salary of less than $45,550, or $65,050 for a family of four. 

In 2021, the city issued 186 permits for very low-income units, 751 units fewer than in 2020 when developers obtained 937 very low-income housing permits. Last year's number of very low-income units was the lowest since 2018.

Low Income Housing

The number of permits for low-income housing units saw a similar drop in 2021. 

Last year, the city issued permits for 265 low-income units in San Diego whereas in 2020 that number was 768. It was the lowest total number of low-income permits since 2019. 

Since 2018, the vast majority of permits for affordable housing units have been for developments near downtown, in Mission Valley, and San Ysidro while other communities such as those along the coast have seen no proposals.

Above Moderate Income Housing

Meanwhile, according to the data, developers continue to focus on market-rate housing units for San Diego's top-income earners. 

The number of housing units that were permitted for above moderate income earners, saw only a slight drop in 2021.

Last year developers obtained permits for 4,563 market-rate housing units, around 200 less than 2020's total of 4,774 housing units.

The drop in affordable housing units comes despite city programs aimed to spur development. 

In an effort to encourage developers to build more affordable housing units, previous Mayor Kevin Faulconer implemented programs such as establishing Transit Priority Areas, allowing developers to forego parking requirements in high transit areas, as well as the Complete Communities program which allows developers to build higher and increase density if they agree to set aside 40 percent of the units for low and moderate-income households.

Credit: City of San Diego
Areas Marked In Yellow Are Designated As Transit Priority Areas

But those longer-term policies to address the housing shortage does little for those currently in need of affordable housing. 

Margarita Diaz and her two children share a one-bedroom apartment in City Heights. 

Diaz says she has searched citywide for a two-bedroom apartment for her and her children but has been unable to find anything under $3,000 a month. Diaz, who works full-time but would be considered in the very-low-income category, says even if she could afford $3,000 a month, she doesn't have the three-months rent needed to qualify nor does she have a great credit score. 

"I just haven't had any luck," says Diaz. "I just feel like everything is so difficult because I don't have the income. And I mean, I'm not the only one. I have co-workers that are single parents and they're going through the same thing. It's really hard to pay your rent, pay your bills, and if you have debt, then pay that off as well."

Parisa Ijadi-Maghsoodi is a civil rights attorney who specializes in issues of poverty including affordable housing policy. 

Ijadi-Maghsoodi says the city isn't doing enough to use "evidence-based" approaches to lure more affordable units to San Diego and protect those who are at risk of losing their homes.

When it comes to the city's policy, Ijadi-Maghsoodi says "talk is cheap" and the city has thus far failed to act.

"We know that without incentives, government incentives, extremely low income, very low income and low income housing is not going to be built. And that is why the numbers that we see are not surprising, it was completely predictable, that we would be in the affordable housing crisis that we're in because of government inaction in our region. That inaction, deciding not to act, was a decision on the city's part."

Added Ijadi-Maghsoodi, "We know housing is being built, we see housing being built. But what the numbers show is we are not mandating and enforcing the inclusionary provisions to require the building of income for all housing groups."

In addition, Ijadi-Maghsoodi says the city has historically, and is currently, refuses to adopt both long and short term solutions to address the housing crisis and San Diego's surging homeless population. 

She says without addressing rent control and implementing requirements that all housing developments include an affordable housing component, then the problem will only get worse.

"We must take tangible steps to preserve existing affordable housing, and to incentivize the development of affordable housing, ensuring that when we talk about affordable housing, we're talking about extremely low, very low and low income families."

Mayor Todd Gloria's Push For More Affordable Units

Mayor Todd Gloria's Office says the mayor is doing just that.

In a statement to CBS 8, Gloria says the only way to end the housing crunch while simultaneously addressing homelessness is to build more homes in more areas of the city.

“Homelessness and high rents are the results of decades of statewide and local policies that made it extremely difficult to build homes," Gloria said in a statement to CBS 8. "If we’re going to reduce homelessness and have any chance of lowering the cost of housing, we must build more homes as quickly as possible."

Gloria says he has implemented several new initiatives in hopes of making "it easier and faster to put a roof over the head of every San Diegan at a price they can afford.” 

Those initiatives include programs that open up communities near transit areas and with fewer than five percent affordable housing units to projects that propose 100 percent affordable housing units and density bonus units.

Gloria's Office says the administration also plans to address the affordable housing shortage by expanding the Complete Communities Program as well as updating community plans to speed up the development process and increase density in some communities. Gloria's Office also says the city is moving forward to use city-owned land for more affordable housing projects.

City of San Diego Planning Director Heidi Vonblum says that her department has shifted away from the previous administration's focus on just building more units and more towards building more affordable units.

"While many of the City’s housing programs that have recently been put into place under prior administrations have been successful at spurring new home development, they largely neglected issues related to affordability and fair housing opportunities," said Vonblum  "The Mayor’s most recent, as well as upcoming, proposals, are focused on not just increasing home opportunities, but increasing them in places that will afford San Diegans of all incomes access to transit, safe and enjoyable biking and walking in all communities, and in homes that meet their needs, including homes for families with children and inter-generational families."

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