New home under construction
The frame of a new home under construction. Courtesy County News Center

The San Diego region has been in a housing crisis for decades. Now, we’re the most unaffordable place to live in the country.

The statistics are easy to find and hard to digest:

  • 171,685 homes are needed within the next 7 years
  • This demand is not likely to be met at the current rate
  • 50,000 people work in San Diego but live in Riverside County
  • The number of homes on the market has decreased by 80% since 2018

I’ve had the pleasure of working with my colleagues on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for the past 21 months. Each of us have said publicly that producing housing is critical. But this week, my colleagues and I are facing a choice that will decide the future of housing in San Diego County.

On Sept. 28, the board is set to vote on a state guideline related to vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, a policy that limits our ability to build housing in the unincorporated area based on the idea that it creates more vehicle usage.

Though certainly there are nuances, the choice is clear. A NO vote will save our chance at providing affordable housing and make it possible for our children and grandchildren to grow and stay in San Diego County.

If the board chooses to approve the state’s VMT policy, our county’s ability to provide housing will be significantly crippled — and the housing crisis will worsen.

The previous board spent a decade on a general plan that shifted housing needs to areas with services (water, sewer, fire protection) with a potential capacity of 58,000 homes.

The board could now vote to functionally reduce that capacity by 90%, to 5,870 homes.

Click on this map created by the county’s Planning and Development Services to see the areas where you can build under a streamlined review process under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

If you want to build more than 10 homes in an area that is not shaded in that map, it would require an Environmental Impact Report under CEQA – which takes at least 2 years and often costs over $1 million to complete. And that is before final design, grading, and construction costs.

The state’s goal to reduce vehicle pollution is admirable. When I first moved to Alpine 30 years ago, there was a significant smog problem. With better regulations on vehicle emissions, I can now walk around my neighborhood with my kids and not worry about them having breathing problems.

But the state’s guidelines around VMT are nebulous. They fail to consider the use of electric vehicles and rise of residents working from home.

Under the state’s guidelines, a resident who worked from home and only drove an electric vehicle would still be considered as producing the same amount of emissions as someone who commutes downtown every single day in a gas vehicle (unless you can provide substantial evidence to the state).

And let’s not forget — our general plan has already reduced vehicle miles traveled by an estimated 11% in 2011.

The state’s guidelines unfairly punish commuters who can’t afford to live along the coast. Those who live in the backcountry love our communities, but a major reason why we live there is because it is vastly more affordable. It’s the same reason why 50,000 hard-working employees in San Diego choose to drive home to Riverside daily.

I’m all for improving our environmental quality, but the idea of reducing the county’s housing capacity by 90% is not good policy — especially during a heartbreaking surge in homelessness throughout the county.

How can we make progress on our homelessness crisis if we can’t meet the demand for housing units?

As respected local economists have pointed out, we need a region-wide approach to housing. And it needs to include the vast unincorporated county lands. This is where we can put a significant dent in solving housing needs.

There are three ways we can prioritize housing people instead of implementing nebulous state guidance:

  1. Include the areas designated as “village” to be exempt from VMT. The village areas alone have a capacity of 22,632 units and were planned to accommodate growth.
  2. Analyze the “semi-rural” lands within the county for use as middle-income housing (possibly with other regional partners). Develop a specific plan with robust incentives that allows development on suitable land.
  3. Lead the effort to form the Regional Housing Partnership. We have the resources, land, and leadership to bring all of the region together.

There is a way to simultaneously build housing and improve the environment. If you agree the board should vote NO on adopting the state’s VMT policy and take a region-wide approach to solving the housing crisis, sign my petition here by Sept. 27.

Supervisor Joel Anderson represents the 2nd District in San Diego County.