A San Diego program incentivizing developers to increase housing density has been used in thousands of projects throughout the city since it was established in 2016, according to a report from mobility advocacy nonprofit Circulate San Diego released this week. The Affordable Homes Bonus Program is one of several policy changes the city has made to increase the density of housing throughout the city over the past several years.
California has a density bonus law allowing developers to build more units if they designate a certain proportion as affordable. San Diego took that idea a step further in establishing its own enhancement to that law in 2016, allowing developers to build even more units when they include a higher number of affordable ones.
That policy allowed the city to increase housing density in neighborhoods without having to update underlying zoning, said Colin Parent, executive director and general counsel at Circulate San Diego. He was part of a panel at the Urban Land Institute's annual spring meeting in San Diego on Tuesday that discussed the city's housing development challenges.
"That's different than what most cities have done but it's also better and it's working," said Parent.
The cost of buying or renting a home has surged in many urban regions across the U.S. over the past few years, resulting in more people falling behind on rent, being evicted and experiencing homelessness. The rising costs, housing experts say, are largely due to a lack of housing to accommodate population growth.
The housing shortage is especially prominent in Southern California. Heidi Vonblum, San Diego's planning director, said during the panel the city is looking to build more homes for people in all communities, including higher-resourced neighborhoods.
Andrew Malick, who founded his own infill development-focused firm in San Diego, said cities can boost housing density in walkable neighborhoods by building on existing lots adjacent to transit.
Vonblum said building homes next to transit is part of San Diego's carbon emission goals, which places an emphasis on strategic land use planning. However, Malick said, San Diego's zoning laws have height restrictions in some areas, and lots that are available next to transit are fairly small in size — placing greater emphasis on the need for small-scale infill developments.
The city in recent years created multiple housing incentive programs and attempted to clear regulatory hurdles, including a program that expedites affordable housing, infill development and sustainable building projects, Vonblum said.
In 2020, 44% of eligible home projects used the city's building density bonus program, the Circulate San Diego report found. Since 2016, the program was used on projects that created over 6,000 homes. And from 2016 to 2020, it was used to create 463 deed-restricted affordable homes in mixed-income projects, financed primarily without relying on public subsidy.
About 95% of the projects that used the program did so within a half-mile of a high-performing transit stop, "which is important to addressing the city of San Diego's robust climate change goals," Parent said. About two-thirds of the projects entitled through the program are located in high opportunity census tracts, he added, "meaning they are deed-restricted, permanently affordable homes in places that otherwise wouldn't have them."
"This program creates these mixed-income properties in places where affordable units otherwise wouldn't be produced, giving low-income families, low-income households access to better school districts, more amenities, better access to jobs," Parent said.
The city has also been regularly updating its building codes, taking into account feedback about where in the permitting process projects get hung up and how to streamline those processes, said Vonblum.
The city needs to place its focus beyond just streamlined approval processes that require little or no personal judgment from public officials and set clear regulations that are guided by active community engagement, Vonblum said.
"This is not just for the development community to have clear regulations so they can have that certainty in the development process, but it's also for the communities to know what to expect with each individual development project that comes through," she said.