Townhomes under construction
New townhomes under construction in Tampa, one of the nation’s booming housing markets. REUTERS/Octavio Jones

San Diego elected leaders and government bureaucrats have been working on affordable housing for years, but sadly their efforts have been largely unsuccessful. San Diego now tops the list for having the nation’s most unaffordable housing market.

This may be good news for homeowners who have seen double-digit property appreciation year after year. Many San Diegans are sitting on a million dollars or more of equity. But for those entering the housing market things look bleak. 

If San Diego cannot build enough homes for people who can afford them, how are we ever going to manage the homeless crisis? The affordable housing dilemma in San Diego is a supply and demand issue that was self-inflicted.

As voters passed costly school bond initiatives and politicians pushed for pricey climate-action mandates, the cost to build homes in San Diego did not pencil out for many developers. Even when affordable housing projects were proposed, neighborhoods fought vigorously against them with a NIMBY attitude. 

The desire to have good schools and a viable climate-action plan should have been balanced with the need for affordable housing. But it appears that elected leaders and the public may not have fully understood the unintended consequences of placing significant mandates on property owners. 

One of the most damaging factors leading to the affordable housing crisis in San Diego has to be the city’s own costly and sluggish permitting process. In order to begin to build affordable homes, local government needs to take bold steps and waive or substantially reduce building permit fees on housing projects.

While permitting fees serve an important purpose, they can also add up. Local government needs to create a fee waiver system for developers of qualifying affordable housing projects.

Developers could submit an application for the waiver to the city, along with documentation proving their intention to comply with eligibility requirements. Once the application has been approved for a qualifying project, the permit fees are waived, lowering building costs.  

Elected leaders must also refrain from implementing any new mandates and should consider rolling back some that have already been implemented. Local government cannot control the cost of building materials, but does have the ability to manage regulatory costs and make homes more affordable by waiving permit fees and streamlining the building process. 

We are also feeling the unintended consequences of rent control. Government’s default solution to make housing affordable has historically been rent control, but that makes homes even less affordable as frustrated landlords remove their properties from the rental market, further limiting the supply of housing and driving up rents. Stripping away private property rights and imposing rental restrictions on homeowners were ill-advised attempts to solve the housing and rental crisis and yet these measures became law. 

One of the groups most affected by the housing and rental crisis are the aging Baby Boomers. By 2030, there will be approximately 9 million between the ages of 66 and 84. Most will be on fixed incomes and need some form of affordable housing. San Diego lacks enough affordable housing to meet the needs of our growing senior population and local government must do much more to increase the supply.  

Granny flats can be used to help make rents more economical for service professionals, such as teachers, police officers and nurses — anyone who makes an average salary in San Diego — without noticeably changing the neighborhood. However, many communities are opposed to recently enacted Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10. 

The first bill allows any residential lot to be subdivided, allowing four homes to be built on a lot currently zoned for one home. In some cases, six homes will be allowed. The second bill allows City Councils to unilaterally increase density near jobs or transit sites and allow a 10-unit project with four granny flats on a lot where one home stood before. 

Although these laws were meant to help manage the housing crisis, there remains considerable opposition.  

Rather than knee-jerk reactions or flawed legislation to address the housing crisis, real solutions are needed such as reducing or waiving exorbitant permit fees, avoiding additional climate-action mandates, streamlining the permitting process and incentivizing the building of auxiliary dwelling units.

One thing we know is for sure: whatever our elected leaders are doing to make homes affordable in San Diego is not working. 

Mark Powell is a real estate broker and a former San Diego County Board of Education member.