Older San Diego Buildings Are Good for Affordable Housing and Climate Resilience

by on March 3, 2022 · 6 comments

in History, San Diego

From Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO)

Affordable Housing

Within San Diego and across the country, skyrocketing housing prices and the loss of naturally occurring, or unsubsidized, affordable housing plague our communities.

One important solution is to reinvest in and preserve older buildings for housing. This would alleviate some of the pressure for three compelling reasons: existing buildings are inherently more affordable and sustainable, enable less costly housing and more of it to be produced faster, and don’t contribute to the landfill.

Obviously, older buildings can play a significant role in meeting affordability and housing challenges. This is why SOHO supports policies that promote repair, maintenance, and adaptive reuse over new construction. Reinvestment in existing buildings will create housing faster, due to less processing and construction timelines, and cheaper, by reusing buildings. This solution is also community-based: It helps keep individuals and families in their neighborhoods, supports home ownership, and minimizes gentrification.

Acknowledging this solution, the May 2020 San Diego Housing Commission report Preserving Affordable Housing in the City of San Diego states, “Preservation of existing unrestricted, naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) can be more cost-effective on a per-unit basis than producing new units…” (p. 10, ) Despite this assertion and SOHO’s participation in housing initiatives such as Blueprint San Diego and Housing for Us All, the City has yet to prioritize and promote reinvestment in and preservation of existing buildings as housing solutions.

As in other cities working to reduce housing shortages, data could show that San Diego is systematically razing housing that is naturally affordable (meaning unsubsidized) and building housing that is not. SOHO will continue to advocate strongly for the reinvestment and preservation of older buildings to support housing and affordability.

For further reading, check out these resources by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Place Economics.

Photo caption: Few hotels from 1914 and before have survived in San Diego due to redevelopment, neglect and fires. The Sandford Hotel project, for which the San Diego Housing Commission won a 2013 SOHO PIP award, is important not only for preserving or replicating the hotel’s original architectural beauty and elegance, but also for major socioeconomic reasons. By continuing to dedicate the hotel to low-income residents, the social makeup of downtown today is interwoven with its historic fabric. Photo courtesy Heritage Architecture and Planning

Climate Resilience

The City of San Diego is missing the big picture by not including historic preservation alongside its other responses to climate change. Historic preservation and adaptive reuse of older buildings, rather than demolition, are proven tools for significantly reducing greenhouse gases, avoiding huge landfill dumps, and providing much-needed housing.

This is why SOHO supports policies that focus on reinvestment in older buildings, and regularly advocates for preservation to be included in all climate policies and discussions. We encourage you to urge your elected officials to prioritize historic preservation in all aspects of their work. Find their names and contact info HERE.

While new construction is frequently portrayed as more environmentally friendly than repurposing old buildings, the city and nation must also consider the high-energy costs of demolishing existing structures, discarding that waste into landfills, the production and transportation of new and raw building materials, and construction emissions that may last for years, depending on the scale of a project.

Existing buildings retain the embodied carbon from the energy and resources used to construct them. They also keep on giving: they can be retrofitted, updated, expanded, and reused in new ways.

Adaptive reuse of historic buildings with significance, character, and quality construction should be of large appeal to architects and developers. There are many designers who have already recognized the lucrative market for these novel living quarters and workspaces, and the public is enthusiastically embracing and seeking out these alternative places. The city also benefits socially, aesthetically, and financially from these historic preservation projects.

TRU Bankers Hill Apartments, described here with a photo, is a recent successful example of providing rental housing through creative adaptive reuse and inspiring architectural heritage.

The city’s progress in combating perhaps the biggest challenge of our times includes documents like the Climate Action Plan and Climate Resilient SD, discussed HERE.

What’s missing in these documents currently guiding San Diego is the retention, reinvestment in, and adaptive reuse of existing buildings.

To learn more about the connection between older buildings and climate resilience, check out these resources:

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

kh March 3, 2022 at 11:00 am

Older naturally-occurring affordable housing projects are the #1 target for developers to knock down and build unaffordable housing. (Or 140% AMI or market rate or whatever other word salad they use to describe it.)


Gail Friedt March 3, 2022 at 2:48 pm

It’s been 4 years since the old Mission Hills library was deemed “historic” in order to block the city’s plan to make it into permanent supportive housing. It’s been sitting empty during that time, broken into and has people frequently sleeping outside of the building. How has making this property historic helped the community? Everyone wants affordable housing, just not in their neighborhood.


Carl M Zanolli March 4, 2022 at 10:22 am

I live in the Mission Hills/Hillcrest area and the very last thing this neighborhood needs is “permanent supportive housing” in the old library building


Geoff Page March 4, 2022 at 11:34 am

Why is that, Carl? What’s wrong with having some in that area?


Carl M Zanolli March 5, 2022 at 12:14 pm

Because, Jeff, we already have far more than our fair share of the burden.


Gail Friedt March 5, 2022 at 2:44 pm

Mr. Zanolli – I live in the same area. Can you please provide the location of this supportive housing of which you speak? Thank you.


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