Lifting Height Limits Won’t Help Affordablility
Below is my Commentary published in the Union Tribune 3/12/2020
San Diego Union-Tribune – Metro – eNewspaper
BY JAMES LAMATTERY
Should San Diego eliminate the 30-foot height limit for the 48 acres surrounding the
Sports Arena site?
San Diego doesn’t need any more high-priced luxury high-rise apartment towers financed
by Wall Street private equity firms that are corporate landlords looking to maximize rents.
Lifting the height limit for the 48 acres surrounding what’s now called Pechanga Arena
will be pouring gas onto the raging fire of our affordable housing crisis. It’s about
Luxury in the area near the Sports Arena? Yes, because flat-stacked rental units with
views of the ocean and bay will demand top-of-the-market rents. The area is prime view
property — if you can build high enough. Our City Council members need to leave our
height limits and zoning alone and get to work on solving the affordable housing crisis
before we build another unit anywhere in San Diego.
It may seem a pragmatic choice to lift the height limit only for this one area, and only for
this important housing crisis. But the real crisis is affordability, not more high-priced
inventory. The projects that come forward out of the giveaway of rezoning and density
increases as a result of lifting the height limit will lack the affordable housing necessary to
house the moderate and low-income households that they create.
That’s right. Building more creates low-income jobs, which translate into low-income
families that need affordable housing.
San Diego’s nexus analysis of the city’s inclusionary housing program (in 2011 by Keyser
Marston Associates) identified the number of low- and median-income households that
are generated for every 100 market-rate units built. That percentage is 15% to 27%. The
city only requires developers to reserve 10% of their units for these households. This
results in the addition of 5% to 17% of the households created by new projects to the
existing number of low- and medium-income households that are on the 10-year waiting
list for Section 8 assistance. The analysis was based upon sales prices and rents in 2011.
Higher sales prices and rents push the percentages up, especially when wages don’t rise.
Because developers are not required to reserve enough affordable housing, we accelerate
the number of middle- and low-income families that are priced out of housing when we
allow them to build. The Building Industry Association’s representative, Matt Adams, who
lobbies the council to relax or remove the current requirements, claims that builders can
only build luxury and market-rate units to be profitable. “Market rate” is the highest sales
price or rent that a development can generate per ZIP code. I believe Adams. Residual land
3/12/2020 San Diego Union-Tribune – Metro – eNewspaper
values demand it. But those calculations change when you lift height limits, which can
The Midway District developers say that they can build the same number of units without
lifting the existing height limit, but they contend that lifting it will allow for more “open
space.” Any density increase by way of rezoning or lifting height limits anywhere in San
Diego must come with public benefits — and which one do we need the most?
Affordability, not open space.
The City Council recently lifted the 30-foot height limit with its approval of the Planning
Department’s Morena Corridor Specific Plan, which allows 11,000 new units to be built
along the trolley line from Friars Road to Balboa Avenue. The $2 billion public investment
in the trolley system was ignored when it came to receiving any public benefit for the
lifting of that height limit. The local residents had to beg to raise the percentage of
affordable units from 10% to 15% and ban the use of the “in-lieu” fee that the council has
allowed builders to pay instead of actually building affordable units in their projects.
We don’t need more luxury or market-rate units built in the Midway District. In fact, we
don’t need any more built anywhere in San Diego until we find a solution to the affordable
We don’t need to lift any height limits, either. We need leaders who will lift the chains of
affordability from the backs of our residents who need accommodation the most — our
dwindling middle class and growing lower-income households.
Lifting height limits only exacerbates the problem. And just because it’s hard to solve the
crisis, we need to look to other solutions than adding to the problem.
Do I have a solution? Yes. The Workforce Housing and Neighborhood Protection Act,
which would amend the state Constitution to change how local and state governments
incentivize affordable housing. It might be on the ballot in 2022.
LaMattery is a La Jolla real estate broker and a spokesperson for Raise The Balloon.