Complete Communities: Scourge or Savior?

by on June 24, 2020 · 25 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Norma Damashek / NumbersRunner / June 23, 2020

Part I: Complete Communities

Over the past six months, the international scientific community has been working its tail off to subdue the coronavirus scourge wreaking havoc on the world population.

Meantime, Americans are taking to the streets demanding the annihilation of other malignant viruses infecting our nation–namely, racist violence by the police and the embedded racism that underlies too many of our country’s institutions.

How are San Diego leaders responding to this pandemic moment of economic, political, and life-threatening upheaval?  The answer won’t make you proud.  It could make you angry.

Throughout these past months of social turmoil, racial reckoning, and a deadly health crisis, San Diego’s Mayor, along with city planners and the development industry, have laser-focused their efforts on fast-tracking an extraordinary proposal called “Complete Communities: Housing Solutions and Mobility Choices Initiative” which:

… removes regulatory barriers to housing at all income levels, especially low, very low, and moderate-income households, while investing in neighborhood and mobility amenities, such as recreational opportunities, street trees, linear parks, bicycle facilities, urban plazas, and promenades.

The Complete Communities plan purports to diminish the city’s greenhouse gas emissions while it fixes the dilemma of housing unaffordability, and will also:

… provide all residents access to the resources and opportunities necessary to improve the quality of their lives… a healthy environment and thriving communities… to enhance the quality of life for all residents, regardless of their background and identity.

And how will this urbanized Garden of Eden be created?  By enabling multistory redevelopment, substantial population growth, and high densities in neighborhoods and communities throughout San Diego.

The proposal has a magic wand to eliminate “regulatory barriers” like existing zoning regulations, height and setback restrictions, environmental analyses, and community review.  And ABRACADABRA! a bucket of fairy dust to guarantee generous financial incentives to builders plus a license to build whatever they see fit to build, whenever and wherever they are ready to build it.

Part II: Incomplete Communities

You may be wondering why you have never heard of this transformative political initiative to rebuild the physical, social, and — indeed – -the racial identity of our city.

It’s because Complete Communities was conceived and gestated in private — no citizens’ committee, no speeches from the Mayor, no open workshops, no publicized opportunity for your input, questions, or concerns.

There’s no other way to say it: Mayor Faulconer has betrayed San Diego voters by handing over control of our city’s future to the region’s business / builder /growth industry — with the complicity of gullible YIMBY acolytes.

And you — whether homeowner, renter, citizen, resident, or taxpayer — are not only expected to put on a facemask, your Mayor is also counting on you to don a gag and blindfold when it comes to shaping your neighborhood’s future and the city’s fate.

But the most egregious betrayal of all is that — at root – -Complete Communities is a government-sponsored racist proposal.

Why do I say that?  Consider this:

The housing element of San Diego’s General Plan informs us that our city “must have an adequate supply of housing to maintain its economic competitive edge and house its workforce.”  It warns that, “with the emergence of San Diego’s knowledge-based economy it is critical to ensure there is a steady supply of housing coming online to meet the needs of this diverse group of workers.”

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Latino and Asian residents living in San Diego increased by 21% and 24%, respectively.  White and Black residents declined by 2% and 11% over the same period.

SANDAG predicts that these trends will continue for at least another decade. The forecast says that the city’s Latino population will account for 35% of the total population.  For the Asian population it’s 16%.  For the Black population it’s 6%.  The White population will decrease to 38%.

The poverty rate within the Black and Brown communities is more than double that in San Diego’s White community.

The truth is, Complete Communities it designed to meet more of the economic needs of the development industry than the need for adequate, affordable housing of the city’s “diverse group of workers” and other essential sectors of our population

As for betrayal, consider this: During the postwar decades following World War II, the federal government provided loans, subsidies, and enabling legislation to developers to build extensive tracts of housing on the outskirts of existing cities.

War veterans and families also received government loans and subsidies, enabling them to leave crowded cities for clean/green new lives in rapidly proliferating suburban developments.

Back then, the beneficiaries this new government housing policy were, with intent, almost exclusively White families.

Fast forward to 2020.  The Complete Communities proposal, with its mandates for vigorous urbanization of San Diego neighborhoods, flips the proverbial American Dream of Suburban Paradise on its head. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But notice that– intentionally or not– the beneficiaries of San Diego’s newest housing policy are once again almost exclusively White individuals and couples.

Part III: Expediting the Exodus

As envisioned by the Complete Communities proposal, the overriding majority of new construction falls into two categories:

a) high-end “luxury” apartments, and
b) micro/ mini/ small studio and one-bedroom units.

The proposal uses a complex formula for creating “affordable” apartment units but the numbers come nowhere close to meeting the actual housing needs of our city’s population (take another look at SANDAG forecasts).

The formula also avoids the reality that dense redevelopment throughout the city clears away existing affordable housing and displaces families and individuals who now occupy them.

And is it impolite to point out that the formula aims for an indecently scant number of family-sized housing units considered affordable to moderate/ low-income households?

Bottom line

  1. We know that the era of suburbanization intentionally left Black and Brown families in the lurch, forcing them to make their own way in neglected, decaying cities.
  2. We know that the Mayor’s proposed urbanization initiative leaves San Diego’s Black and Brown families in the lurch by forcing them out of city boundaries through redevelopment and displacement and providing shamefully few opportunities to stay.
  3. We know that the intended beneficiaries of Complete Communities are combinations of:  young, well-paid singles and couples touching down in San Diego for a few years; upper-income retirees;  vacation rental clients;   corporate sleepovers for expense-account clients; and   safe parking spots for foreign and domestic investors.
  4. We know that there’s something profoundly dishonest about a scheme that builds too much of what we don’t need in order to get a small fraction of what we do need.
  5. We know that the city already has the capacity to accommodate growth under existing regulations and the community planning process.

Complete Communities should be jettisoned. Once the pandemic dust settles, once we can go eye to eye with our elected officials, that’s the time for a thorough airing of fresh proposals to map an equitable future for San Diego.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page June 24, 2020 at 12:33 pm

Thank you, Norma for illuminating this, I hope everyone takes notice.


Greg June 24, 2020 at 2:11 pm

“gullible YIMBY acolytes”

These issues have been framed locally as progressives (YIMBYs) vs. NIMBYs ignoring that increasing allowable density is akin to supply-side economics when not paired with other progressive policies. Only owners of large real estate investment properties benefit directly from increasing allowable density and we are left to hope that these benefits will trickle down to the rest of us via naive Econ 101 supply and demand. Wonder why this gains so much traction while other progressive policy languishes on the side.


Paul Webb June 24, 2020 at 2:37 pm

Norma, as usual you have provided insightful commentary on yet another scheme by the powers that be to ruin neighborhoods under the guise of providing housing needed for under-represented groups in our community while providing profits for the usual suspects.

I will repeat what I have said before: if we are truly in a “crisis” of housing, the low hanging fruit would be the 16,000 short term vacation rentals that could be added back to the real housing stock I refuse to take anything said on the subject of housing seriously until this happens..


retired botanist June 25, 2020 at 4:05 pm

Add me to the “like button”, Paul. This is just something old dressed up for marketing as something new. Remember all that “affordable housing” when Petco Park was an issue? This has been a developer’s “marketing green wash” for decades! Which part of the lower socioeconomic echelons can’t afford this S#$% don’t people get?!!!! Its total BS!!


Erin June 24, 2020 at 4:11 pm

You state “But notice that– intentionally or not– the beneficiaries of San Diego’s newest housing policy are once again almost exclusively White individuals and couples.” – where is that determination driven from? Where do you find the nexus between creating density near transit equating to a focus on “white individuals and couples”. If creating density is not the answer in your mind, and producing “affordable” and “inclusionary” housing units is not helpful in your determination… then what would you suggest would actually help? You have to be an expert to navigate any kind of development in today’s complicated landscape, the image of the developer who makes money hand over fist is a thing of the 90’s… today’s margins are about 12% on a typical project with a ton of risk. You are absolutely right that programs of the past had major issues… but I don’t see the connection you are trying to make here… in fact, moving to an FAR or form based code should have a larger impact on existing single family home neighborhoods which historically have been more available to people with financial means… so it should help bring economy of scale where there was none before. I am not asking these questions as any kind of attack – I truly want to understand your methodology for labeling this intentionally or unintentionally racist… I would never want to be a part of anything promoting that message but your article does not create a connection that I understand and I am a supporter of trying to create more affordable housing in all our neighborhoods especially those that have nearby transit as well as trying to open up more traditionally single family neighborhoods to greater density to provide more opportunity. So working within the box of economic reality… how do you suggest we create more affordable housing for all?


Geoff Page June 25, 2020 at 11:44 am

Only 12%? You wrote that as if it seemed a paltry profit. The profit margin for construction companies is 3% to 5%, about the same as running a grocery store but with far more risk than developers face. Successful developers use other people’s money, not their own. A developer’s risk is nothing compared to a construction company where one bad job can ruin a long time successful company.


Erin June 25, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Geoff – That is by no means the crux of the conversation. If you see a clear nexus in complete communities and racism I truly want to understand… that’s what this article claims. That is obviously serious… but I don’t see a description or a direct tie actually being illustrated so I am asking in an attempt to understand the claim. Aside from you believing that a 12% potential margin as a goal for an outset of a project is too large… what are your thoughts on the main issues? Do you think there are no housing problems? Who do you think is going to build workforce housing? How do you create work force housing in traditionally high cost neighborhoods without increasing density?


Geoff Page June 25, 2020 at 3:08 pm

Erin, I know the 12% was not the crux of the conversation, it was just something that struck me as notable.

I’m not sure I understand the racism connection either so I was waiting to see if you got a response with some clarification.

“Work force housing” has a specific meaning. It is housing intended to be available for people who work in community services such as police officers and fire fighters and teachers. These people make a decent living but maybe not enough to live in parts of San Diego that have a high value like Point Loma, LA Jolla, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe. This whole idea was born, I believe in places like Vail, Colorado. The people who work at the resort could not afford to live there and had to drive many miles in difficult conditions to live in more affordable housing. This was actually endangering lives. Workforce housing there protects lives.

The Housing Commission is using this term for the housing it wants to put in Famosa Canyon but the same argument does not wash. Point Loma is an expensive place to live, similar to Vail. The difference is that the commute here from other, more affordable parts of the city does not represent the same challenge at all. The idea that workforce or affordable housing has to be in every neighborhood does not make sense to me.

Yes, there is a housing problem, prices and rents are too high. But, I don’t hear people saying there is nothing available, so I do not buy that that there are not enough homes. How to solve the pricing problem? I don’t know but I don’t see how density is the answer for every neighborhood. They have built a lot of housing in Mission Valley and are building more now.

It is my opinion that this is developer-driven. It is not possible to find wide open swaths of land to build subdivisions on anymore so the next market for them is infill density and they are pushing that hard. Build in neighborhoods where land is cheap. I have a very small Craftsman cottage that I’ve lived in for 33 years. I am embarrassed to say how much it is worth but the house itself is a tiny fraction of the total value. Land value is the key, not neighborhoods.


Mat Wahlstrom June 25, 2020 at 1:15 pm

Here’s an excellent article answering your questions. TL; DR — the problem is this density is only being considered for already heavily in-built neighborhoods, not the suburbs which are the real exclusionary zoning areas, and transit-oriented density only reinforces historical inequality:

“There’s another factor, too, which is particularly powerful in San Francisco, but affects all the hot-market cities to varying degrees. They are built-up places. Buildable sites are hard to come by, and when they are found, they are inordinately expensive. Check out San Francisco on Google Earth. It’s the tip of a peninsula. Few places in the U.S. are as tightly built up; even the city’s few industrial areas are wall-to-wall buildings, with few of the sprawling parking lots that characterize industrial areas elsewhere. With a few isolated exceptions, houses are cheek to jowl, often interspersed with apartment buildings. What that means is that to build in San Francisco (or Seattle or Boston) a developer must acquire expensive, already developed land, which usually means having to assemble multiple parcels at great time and expense, then demolish the buildings and prepare the site, all of which entails spending millions before even breaking ground. That is why nobody is going to build modest houses or garden apartments in San Francisco, no matter what the zoning allows.”


Erin June 25, 2020 at 3:49 pm

I appreciate when dialog like this can transpire in such a calm and open way. I had a really negative response to the article because it felt intentionally inflammatory and offered no help in offering any reasonable solution. I’m tired of publications and reporters fanning the flames of anger… its not productive. I am grateful that the comments section hasn’t seemed to take on the same inflammatory back and forth that is so often common online. So thank you.


Geoff Page June 25, 2020 at 4:09 pm

Thank you as well, Erin. I think it was great of Norma to write an informative piece like this. I didn’t have a negative reaction but I was puzzled about the racism part. I will reread it later to see if I missed something. I don’t think her intent was fan any flames really. What I do know about the written word is that what everyone reads is filtered by their own beliefs, experiences, and passions. This touched your nerve more than it did mine but that is to be expected. And, the tenor of comments in the OB Rag has always been much less antagonistic than other on-line forums, which makes for a more useful discussion and affords all of us a chance to learn somethings as we read and, frankly, to try and correct fallacies that are often presented. I look forward to hearing a bit more from Norma unless she feels she has explained this well enough.


norma damashek June 25, 2020 at 1:26 pm

The purpose of city government is to promote the public interest. It’s a complex balancing act, given the assortment of players in the equation and the “box of economic reality” that exists for each player.

“Complete Communities” promotes a particular vision of how the pieces of the puzzle should fit together. The proposal might satisfy the economic needs of some players but it disregards the needs of others. These “others” are found in our city’s communities of color.

The assumption that increased density, in itself, results in greater affordability is fallacious. As for “inclusionary” provisions—they are insanely low, given the need. And while public investment in mass transit is a great idea for a number of reasons, it has little to do with housing affordability.

Obviously private developers, particularly small developers, have their own “box of economic reality” to contend with. Moreover, they aren’t solely responsible for fixing these problems. Huge public investment in affordable housing is a necessity.

But it’s a hoax to assert that the “Complete Communities” proposal would bring significant improvement to the city’s affordable housing or air quality problems. More likely, it would create a new assortment of major problems for San Diego.


erin June 25, 2020 at 1:40 pm

Mat Wahlstrom – thank you for your considered comment and articles. It sounds like what would really benefit best is to open up our higher priced traditionally single family home markets to increased density… I’m sure all the developers in the county would get behind this concept. Next is getting all the NIMBYs to accept this. I don’t see any developer or builder fighting the concept at all. So where is the big social push for this? Is there a single politician that will stand up for this idea? I personally live in a small single family home in a multifamily community and I enjoy the blend of architecture, people, and liveliness in my community. So as people write articles railing against the solutions offered by Complete Communities. I hope that they will transition away from what is “wrong” with every proposal and start offering and vocalizing solutions like opening up single family zoning to density. Where are the strong voices to push that… because it will not be a popular idea off the bat.


retired botanist June 25, 2020 at 4:09 pm

Erin, don’t even need to read the rest of the comments.

Your comment: “the image of the developer who makes money hand over fist is a thing of the 90’s… today’s margins are about 12% on a typical project with a ton of risk. ”
Excuse me, but this whole venture involves people who make NO MARGIN WHATSOEVER on their hand to mouth lifestyle. How elitist. End of story.


Erin June 25, 2020 at 4:54 pm

Retired Botanist,

I’m not elitist. You provided nothing substantive as to how you think the housing crisis should be addressed more effectively. Companies must make a profit to continue to exist, continue to provide jobs, continue to fund new projects… and nobody other than developers and builders are making any headway at all to creating housing in our community… The City certainly is not. In fact many City measures add substantially to the cost of housing. Its very very easy to point the finger and place blame, but its a lot harder to be part of the solution. I’m not attacking anyone’s ideas as to how to address these very real issues… I just don’t see in the article or in Norma’s follow-up comment a connection between complete communities and racism as she suggested. I’m also not claiming that maybe there is a tie… but nothing that she wrote actually illustrates that so I wrote to ask for clarity to try and understand. I actively seek to understand… I also seek solutions that come from dialog. Name calling and text yelling in caps serve little purpose is finding common ground and resolution.


norma damashek June 26, 2020 at 10:03 am

Re. the question about the racist nature of the Complete Communities Initiative, here’s a one-sentence explanation:

When a govt agency creates a blanket policy that will–when implemented, and given the conditions written into that policy–effectively deny use of or access to the fruits of that policy to an identifiable segment of the population, and when that population segment is demonstrably likely to fall into the category of low/mid-income Brown, Black, or other families of color, then that blanket public policy, though it may not appear overtly racist, is–given its inevitable outcome–recognizable as an instrument of systemic racism.


Erin June 26, 2020 at 1:17 pm


Ok, so a couple of questions… are you stating that complete communities fails to create any affordable housing for the low/mid-income category of people or just doesn’t go far enough? Also, the commentary of a “blanket policy”… the City is creating a city-wide policy in an attempt to make City-wide change… what would do you believe is more appropriate? Lastly, going back to one of my earlier questions, given the history of redlining, what are your thoughts on opening up traditional single family neighborhoods for density (per Matt’s link above)?


norma damashek June 26, 2020 at 1:31 pm

I appreciate everyone’s comments and perspectives.
Once we’re back to some semblance of normalcy this needs to become a wide-open public discussion for the full San Diego community. Thanks all.


Mat Wahlstrom June 26, 2020 at 1:47 pm

Okay, so, “Erin,” whatever your real name is: at this point it’s clear that you’re a concern troll. No matter what everyone else here has said to answer your avowed “honest” and “genuine” questions, you simply pretend not to understand or ignore in an effort to drain energy and win by tiring others out.

What you have demonstrated is that, no matter the answer given, you protest developers are our only possible hope for affordable housing and reversing discrimination; and so the only way forward is to remove any and all constraints on them. Which, not coincidentally, is the boilerplate talking point of self-described YIMBY, developer-funded astroturf groups such as Circulate — that was instrumental in crafting this “Complete Communities” scheme behind closed doors. Of course, this flies in the face of the fact that it has been market deregulation which created the mess we’re in.

Until or unless *you* put up some data or studies that support your contention that “build, baby, build” does something other than line the pockets of real estate speculators, I personally have no more time to waste on your bad faith performance.

Because the data showing that preserving affordable housing where it already exists and exposing the lie about high-end new housing “filtering” down is clear,


Erin June 26, 2020 at 2:05 pm

Erin is my name, I don’t think I’m a troll… I rarely involve myself in these types of forums… but I supported Complete Communities and when I saw the racism claim I truly wanted to understand the nexus the author was trying to draw. If there was something I couldn’t initially see I wanted someone to show it to me. I don’t want to stick my head in the sand and pretend its not there. I don’t think asking clarifying questions is some underhanded manipulation tool intended to tire you out… I was just interested in the dialog that appeared to be pretty civil. But as the internet tends to go, people like to see their own opinions reflected and aren’t actually truly willing to engage in conversation that helps everyone learn. I ask questions to learn. I’ve been nothing but civil and I’ve remained on topic without any disparaging anyone. I believe people are inherently good including all of you. I’ll sign off as clearly I am not welcome.


triggerfinger June 27, 2020 at 9:15 am

It protects single family neighborhoods while targeting the low-income rental neighborhoods for redevelopment. It will displace those residents and provide the developers free reign to build high rise market rate condos, requiring 15% of them to be affordable at 120% AMI ($111K/yr income) or 10% of them at 100% AMI ($93K/yr income). Will those displaced be able to afford that, or even qualify for a loan?

And it gets better, they don’t have to build affordable units at all! They can add those deed restrictions to existing units in a dilapidated building in the neighborhood, and may even displace the people in those units too!


Dina July 16, 2020 at 2:08 am

THANK YOU, triggerfinger, for providing some actual data!

I followed this thread in disbelief as a clear and calmly stated question was repeatedly ignored in favor of broad statements and finally personal attacks.
I have no love for private developers, but NIMBYs are just as bad. Dismissing a plan simply because developers agree to it is facile and ultimately unhelpful.

Norma, can you please try to provide more information in an article of this sort, not just your personal affective response? I and most readers do not know you, and thus have no reason to blindly trust either your judgement or your motives (no offense intended). We want facts, not talking points.

And yes, I agree with Erin that at least *some* hints of better alternative solutions would be helpful as well. Otherwise you are implicitly endorsing the status quo.


Geoff Page July 16, 2020 at 11:03 am

“It protects single family neighborhoods while targeting the low-income rental neighborhoods for redevelopment.”

What are you talking about, triggerfinger? What is a “rental neighborhood?” Is that a single family neighborhood with rented homes in it just like my neighborhood here in Pt. Loma?


Roy McMakin June 26, 2020 at 9:43 pm

Seems like at the moment what we need is some serious, and unbiased, study and data about the housing situation in San Diego. And then we need to use that to make some smart decisions. By smart I mean not being unduly influenced by parties that are in the dialog simply for their own economic motives. And we need to understand the degree to which the Complete Community proposal is about our current housing needs and how much is about future monetization of our land.

I’m suspicious of people like Erin who casually portray developers as hard-working folks that deserve to make a buck. One of the troubling ways the global concentration of wealth has manifested is the concentration of real estate ownership. With that in mind do we know the degree REITs and other massive apartment owners are helping to increase rental rates vs market demand? I really don’t know, but it seems worth understanding. I know this is an issue many European cities are trying to make sense of. REITs need to have an attractive rate of return, and raising rents is one of the ways they do it. Do we need our rental rates driven by the need to be an attractive place to globally invest?

Regarding data, I think its known/knowable how much market rate housing we could build with the current zoning. My hunch it would be enough. And I think we need to make clear “work force housing” as used in the housing dialog is meaningless. Developers use the phrase all the time when proposing projects, but they call the units when built “luxury” and try to get the most they can. I think what we need is affordable housing that is clearly defined and guaranteed to be that. I see lots of apartments for rent as I walk around my neighborhood, and I see lots for rent on
Craigslist etc. But I also see lots of homeless people, and I know its hard for lots of people to comfortably pay their rent, let alone buy a home. But I also have heard the the fairy tale of trickle-down this or that for years, and look where we are.

And I just don’t see how ginning-up the value of single family zoned properties is anything more than a way to move the real estate/the land away from a diverse set of local owners and towards large scale corporate interests. When corporations buy up communities of single family homes the sellers might enjoy the price they realize, but it also wipes out a community. Gentrification. I see that as racism. YIMBYs like Erin see it as something else. Perhaps the price of progress or the lesser of two bad things (the vague potential for lower rents is worth wiping out communities).

As Norma states in these comments, we need to have a hearty dialog about all this. But given the zeal of YIMBYs to silence any voices that don’t join in lock-step with their visions of corporate saviors I’m concerned the powers-that-be will succeed in prevent that dialog from happening. There is lots of money to be made if they can pull this off. And the folks behind this have plenty of money to give to politicians and to support well meaning not-for-profits to be their foot soldiers. It seems the leaders of those not-for-profits feel the benefit of funding their noble efforts outweighs the price of their bargain. I’m not willing to assume corporations etc are going to save us. I believe in diverse and local property ownership and a city government working for communities. I don’t see Complete Communities as deriving from that intention.


Roy McMakin June 27, 2020 at 12:54 pm

Consolidation of lots/land leads to consolidation of real estate ownership which leads to consolidation of wealth which leads to consolidation of power.


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