Councilmember Steppe Is Out of Step

by on February 17, 2023 · 37 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Joni Halpern

Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe made an interesting but erroneous assumption in her defense of the City Council’s recent approval of city planning reforms that would allow taller apartment buildings and more backyard units in so-called Transit Priority Areas.

Ms. Steppe’s comment was based on an incorrect assumption that often surfaces whenever residents of stable housing, particularly residents of single family homes, voice opposition to over-densification, rescission of parking requirements, and the overburdening of public assets and facilities through the addition of thousands of residents in a neighborhood over a short period of time.

Surprisingly, Councilmember Jennifer Campbell finally spoke out about the “tremendous” and “terrible” impact of these building code changes, noting proponents of the changes will not achieve their publicly stated goal of adding to the stock of housing available to moderate- and low-income San Diegans.  Campbell said, “Just accepting what purports to increase housing doesn’t tackle the issue in the way we really need to.”  True that.

Councilmember Steppe replied that Campbell and others who oppose the changes should not presume to know the burdens their fellow San Diegans will bear in order to reach public transit facilities.

“You will walk a mile to transit if you have to,” she said.  “For those of us who maybe have never had to, it’s easy to say folks won’t do that.”

Her statement was a sneer at San Diegans who are fortunate to live in stable housing and have been able to retain use of their cars in this era of dramatically increasing costs.  She is calling attention to those of us occupy those fortunate digs.  She implies we know nothing of the sacrifices those who are forced to rely on public transit are willing to make.

She also implies that if we are not struggling to put a roof over our heads, if we do not have to rely on public transportation, then we are probably selfishly ignorant enough to assume that others would make the same choices as we would to avoid public transportation.

With this statement, Steppe and other proponents of the “walk-a-mile-to-transit” philosophy, have suggested that physical and financial struggle has never been experienced, and can never be understood, by persons who are not presently faced with a housing or transportation struggle.  She couldn’t be more wrong.

Many of us grew up without transportation in the sprawling expanse of San Diego’s suburban landscape.  Many of us can remember waiting an hour or more in the heat or rain for public transit that often was – and still is – late, infrequent, unavailable for night shifts, beset by rules that limit the number of bags that can be carried on, prohibit pets, and often are in need of simple cleaning, let alone sanitizing.

Many of us can remember not being able to accept a job, because the bus schedule and location of transit stops offered us no way to arrive on time to work, or to provide us with a connection home after we got off work.  Many of us can remember disembarking in the darkness for the long walk home, encumbered by groceries,  work items or other burdens, wondering if we would make it home safely.

Those experiences weren’t just “back in the day.”  Even recent bus and trolley experiences often involve the same obstacles to passenger accessibility and ease of use as in earlier times.  People with small children, bags, books, shopping carts, and other necessary “baggage” still have a terrible time using public transit without mishap.  Persons with minor or serious disabilities can find themselves facing terrain in that “last mile” home that is challenging to the able-bodied, let alone those encumbered by physical impairment.

In recent years, a city planner addressing burdens of that “last mile” beyond public transit stops recommended the use of Uber or scooters to reach one’s destination.  Her audience was too polite to laugh, but several persons mused after she left that the planner obviously had not been afflicted with any of dozens of disabling conditions that make it downright dangerous to use scooters or bikes, and perhaps impossible to walk the last mile.

As for hailing an Uber, Councilmember Steppe’s remarks about the ignorance of the fortunate would be better directed at this planner, who may not have experienced the kind of budget limitations that prohibit paying for individual transport.

Speaking of the less fortunate, it is worth noting that many of us who live in single family homes or are otherwise among the blessed, in terms of stable housing, have served, or still serve, very low-income individuals and families in our work, whether paid or volunteer.

Many low-income parents cannot afford child care, so they must take all their family members with them on public transit to grocery shop, attend medical appointments, or get to their work activities after dropping small children at school.  Bus passes for a family are expensive.  And even if school children are free, it still is a monumental struggle to travel by bus with belongings and children.

It is also exhausting for persons with disabilities, many of whom are very low-income and dependent on public transit.  For all of these reasons and more, even people who have no other form of transportation to rely upon often choose to stay home unless they absolutely have to take the public transit system.

Those who have worked closely in the service of deeply poor individuals and families in San Diego have often advocated for a bigger investment in public transit rather than in building more roads to allow developers intent on prospering from expansion of suburbs.  We have testified  before the City Council, the Metropolitan Transit District, the County Board of Supervisors, state legislators and anyone else who would stand still long enough for us to make our case.  To no avail.  The vast majority of funding went to road development and improvement.

Meanwhile, the public transit system continued on its inglorious path to utter irrelevance.

Now public officials like Councilmember Steppe are awakened to the need for a more robust use of public transit.  Alas, the system is so far behind in the development of its infrastructure that it is virtually useless to all but a small fraction of the riders needed to pump up its appeal, let alone its revenue.

Nevertheless, Councilmember Steppe and others on the Council, as well as other public officials, go along with developers who insist we can never house low-income persons unless developers are free to overwhelm our streets and neighborhoods with hundreds of units, despite the lack of parking, the provision of only meager, if any, amenities, and inadequate public facilities and services to accommodate this massive, immediate growth.

A common argument of these developers and the majority of the City Council is that if there are insufficient parking spaces, people will use the vastly inadequate public transportation system, which should have been the target for intense development all along.

These over-densification proponents criticize those in opposition as being the privileged few who care nothing if the rest of the city’s families live in the streets.  The real truth is that the continued acquiescence to developers’ interests in San Diego City and County, while profoundly underinvesting in public infrastructure, has actually increased the need for housing for people who are struggling to find a residence they can afford.

The number of persons served by the proportionately small percentage of “affordable” housing made available in new  developments is far too little to catch up with the huge backlog of affordable housing need.  And as for the needs of very-low-income households, the changes affirmed by the City Council, now as in the past, have absolutely no hope of making a noticeable dent in this important and enduring population of individuals and families.

Even if every San Diegan were capable of walking, and thus agreed to walk a mile as the crow flies, or a mile-and-a-half or two miles for actual access to a transit stop (even across busy freeway overpasses and crowded streets), it would not sufficiently address the huge backlog of housing stock needed to meet the needs of our fellow citizens who cannot afford local rents, let alone the purchase of local housing.

That is the result of poor public leadership, not the failure of some residents to envision which of their fellow San Diegans would be willing to walk a mile.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Vern February 17, 2023 at 2:39 pm

Joni, thank you for your post!


Joni Halpern February 17, 2023 at 8:23 pm

My privilege!


Pat Sexton February 18, 2023 at 12:18 pm

I too thought the same thing re: Ms. Montgomery’s comment. Excellent response Joni. What the council approved in a close vote, does not take into consideration of anyone who is not young, single, and no kids. I felt the college kids were “shills”, and they’re transient. They’ll be gone by the time SD gets thousands of multi family housing units constructed. I would strongly suggest if they like living in closed in cramped quarters, when they graduated, move to a city they like better. I’ts infuriating the Condo and Apts. dwellers on the City council and Mayor have no clue how other people live, work, play, have yards, and kids to drop off. And the woke crowd will be lost in the real world whenever they grow up. I wondered if they were old enough to vote…..


Joni Halpern February 18, 2023 at 1:07 pm

Pat, your comments are very well-expressed. You point to a division in perception and understanding that has been exploited by politically ambitious persons at all levels of our lives. These persons have pitted young against old, persons of color against those who are White, certain persons of religion against other persons of conscience, those who have housing stability against those who do not — and on and on it goes. We are one people but with many different needs. It is foolhardy to think that if we satisfy the needs of one group, we will have done justice to all others. But alas, it is not the over-arching goal of our politics today to do justice. It is simply to win. We live, therefore, amidst hollow victories by slight majorities who care nothing about how their opponents will fare in the outcomes.


Phil February 19, 2023 at 6:27 pm

Joni and Pat, thanks for this great breakdown!

I was thinking while watching the City Council meeting the other day, and seeing all these young folks speaking out about needing more *housing*, am I out of touch?

No, it’s the children who are wrong.

Bravo for saying it!


Chris February 19, 2023 at 7:56 pm

I have have pointed out in a few other articles, there is a presence of younger people who are very up front in their desire to create a community where there are less older people out and around in their presence. I have personally interacted with more than a few who consider the elderly and their needs a burden and annoyance. This is the demographic these council members are trying to appeal to. As for suggesting people who like denser living conditions move to those kinds of cities, that ship has sailed IMO. Good or bad we are going to see (over time) drastic changes to SD.


Phil February 20, 2023 at 2:29 pm

Pat, I did notice you used “woke” here, what do you mean by that? I’m kind of scratching my head. Great thoughts otherwise!


Paul Krueger February 18, 2023 at 10:44 am

This is a very valuable counterpoint to the fallacious arguments made by the council majority that approved the SDAs.
Those of us who embrace the truth of your explanation really appreciate your taking the time and effort to explain the sad reality of public transit in San Diego, and the refusal of a majority of our council (and our Mayor) to acknowledge the need to craft housing/density/transit/climate action politics that reflect the those realities.
Please consider editing this essay down to 750 words and submitting it to the Commentary section at the UT. The editor is Laura Castaneda, at
I’ve posted it on Twitter and Facebook; please ask your friends to do the same.
With much appreciation,
Paul Krueger


Pat Sexton February 18, 2023 at 12:19 pm

Thanks Paul. Good valid points too.


Joni Halpern February 18, 2023 at 1:08 pm

Thank you, Paul. I will consider your suggestion. Thank you for supplying the contact.


Lisa Mortensen February 18, 2023 at 11:06 am

Bravo, Joni. I agree with your every word!
Lisa Mortensen


Pat Sexton February 18, 2023 at 12:11 pm

I too 2nd every word.


Joni Halpern February 18, 2023 at 1:10 pm

Thank you for taking the time to read my comment, Lisa. I almost forgot there are people in our country whose attention span is still accessible to more detailed thought.


Jim Varnadore February 18, 2023 at 2:11 pm

A couple things, please: 1) We in City Heights, a low-income area, don’t need or want studio or one-bedroom apartments for $1,300 – $1,500 per month. We really need apartments large enough (3-Br, 4-Br, 5-Br, etc.) to house our large families and our multi-generation families. We understand what the monthly rental cost will be. As it is now, many larger families or multi-generational families rent two apartments, hopefully in the same complex in order to get needed space. We do understand the finances. Also, as renters, we aren’t in a position to build an ADU or JADU to help house a large nuclear or extended family.

2) From Adams Avenue to SR-94 and from Park Boulevard to 54th Street (the greater Mid-city area), the grid is laid out so that eight blocks North-South measures a mile, as do sixteen blocks East-West. My neighbors understand blocks better than they understand miles. It might be the same elsewhere. Picture walking eight (or sixteen) blocks to catch a bus. Picture it on a cold, rainy day. Picture it on a cold, rainy day, and the bus, running faster than it should, leaves the stop before you get there.


Kate Callen February 18, 2023 at 2:46 pm

Memo to Ms. Steppe: I didn’t “have to” ride the #2 bus from my North Park home when I worked downtown, but I did it anyway. You should try it sometime. Many of your fellow passengers will be transient men who glare at you and make comments about your clothes. To play it safe, you have to keep your nose in a book and avoid eye contact.

I literally could not have walked the hilly mile from my house to the transit stop; my husband drove me in the morning and picked me up at night. The bus was rarely able to keep to schedule. And now we learn that trolley riders were exposed to TB last year.

Ms. Steppe, before you make scornful remarks about people who don’t live near a transit stop, you yourself should set an example and commute by bus or trolley for at least six months. Let us know when that happens.

(Thank you, Joni, for a powerful post!)


Joni Halpern February 18, 2023 at 3:21 pm

Thank you also for a powerful post! You have described San Diego’s public transportation realities so clearly.


Vern February 18, 2023 at 3:06 pm

All city council members and city officials should be required to take public transit every day, no exceptions.


Joni Halpern February 18, 2023 at 3:26 pm

If public officials took public transit every day, they would have to cut out 90% of their activities, unless all of the activities took place on the same site as where their offices are located. It takes me two-and-a-half hours to take the bus from downtown to a location that is only 10 minutes away by car, or about five minutes “as the crow flies,” a measure favored by the majority of our City Council.


Vern February 18, 2023 at 4:29 pm

100% of all public officials’ activity should be working for their employers – the taxpayers.

No photo ops, no travel. Work only.


Pat Sexton February 18, 2023 at 7:15 pm

Excellent comments by all. I agree, our so called leaders should lead by example, and the City tax payers should vote on if City Council and staff get their parking paid for by the City. If riding a bike,or a bus, or the trolley, is such a good idea I wonder why they don’t? Kinda do as I say, not as I do….


Karen Ebner February 19, 2023 at 2:30 pm

I agree with all of your points! Thank you.


David February 19, 2023 at 1:22 pm

Great article and analysis.

I’ve been reflecting on Montgomery’s statement. So, this response is a bit rambling, as I feel insulted personally.

I have been fortunate to be able live in a great neighborhood after being brought up in a poor but nurturing home. I’m insulted by her comment, if you have to walk a mile to public transportation, you’ll do it.

My mother was widowed early, and left with 2 children at home. She didn’t have a drivers license or a car which would have been another expense. Through frugality, she provided a home. The idea that she she would have to walk a mile with 2 kids in tow to a bus stop, then return home with groceries is pretty insensitive. (Luckily there was a small neighborhood store nearby, we had relatives nearby, etc).

When was the last time any of these older council people walked a mile to transportation and then back?

Did they go to the grocery store and then carry groceries and then get back in time to welcome the kids home?

How about on weekends when there is no bus service (which is true of much of San Diego’s buses?), did the council people walk 2 or more miles to church or a store or a relative?

Maybe we should have a statute that states council people and zoning/planning people must take public transportation, scooters, etc and shall not take autos.

Montgomery should apologize for such an insensitive, flippant and insulting comment.


Pamela Willis February 19, 2023 at 3:39 pm

Joni – Your article is right-on, as are the comments posted by readers. Thank you for articulating the myriad reasons the Council’s policy is folly. Another aspect of the housing issue that is little understood and often overlooked is the affordability question. Councilmembers pontificate about including affordable units in the high rise, dense projects their policies allow to be approved without any community notice or review. However the formula used to calculate the proportion of affordable units is a sham. They tout 40% affordability when in reality they require 40% OF THE NUMBER UNITS ALLOWED IN THE UNDERLYING ZONE. In the case of a project proposed in Mission Hills this calculation would result in 2 units (40% of 6) being required to be affordable while the project will result in 64 new units. The City is giving developers a huge benefit for very little return. If we are ever to address homelessness with affordability, at least 50% of the new units should be required to remain restricted for low-income tenants in perpetuity. In addition they are allowing so-called “micro units” (less than 500 square feet) to avoid paying the development impact fees that the City uses to create and maintain necessary infrastructure. Proximity to transit is a convenient argument to avoid the deleterious impacts the over-building will cause.


Lisa Mortensen February 19, 2023 at 7:23 pm

David: Thank you for sharing your very important story. Experiences like yours shape you and it instructs us to see all sides of the debate and feel compassion toward others. Something Ms. Steppe nor the council has any interest in doing. Their repeated & continued insensitivity and ignorance is shocking & hurtful. Again we appreciate you speaking out. Thank you!


Lisa Mortensen February 19, 2023 at 7:24 pm

Thank you. Pam for your wise words.


Will February 19, 2023 at 8:53 pm

The woke comment really sums up the mentality of the comments section. Why even pretend to be the 8th largest city in America?

I live by many multiple unit structures that house some people who don’t own automobiles. I could also venture to guess the median age of the comment section is probably up there. The world is changing. The idea that every person is to live in a stand-alone house with with an auto and large yard is not sustainable or economically realistic for all people. Dense housing also allows for amenities such as shops, restaurants, and transit to develop and be better utilized. I am much more afraid of air bnb than the idea of having too many resident neighbors.

I purposely live in a walkable community which tend to be the most expensive due to their high desirability. I love the OB Rag for local issues and the neighborhood happenings, but the obsession with cars and maintaining single family zoning is disheartening.


Chris February 20, 2023 at 9:56 am

I personally don’t have any issues with high density housing, but there is no guarantee it will result in better affordability. Likely the opposite. It’s not simple economics 101 and none of you who advocate for denser housing truly believe that it is. As someone who very much does believe in transit, the whole mile thing is just unrealistic. Everyone who supports the one mile distance between living quarters and a transit stop know it’s unrealistic. There are none who don’t.


Vern February 20, 2023 at 1:17 pm

Q… is that you?


Chris February 20, 2023 at 1:49 pm

Not that I agree with Will, but his some comment was a response to Pat Seaxton’s woke comment. I’m kind of baffled that others aren’t seeing that.


Lisa Mortensen February 20, 2023 at 5:25 am

Buz words don’t make sense Will. What’s your definition of ‘woke’? San Diego is known for its diverse neighborhoods. Each community has its own proud ‘vib’. The city’s high-density, one-size fits all approach with completely inadequate transit options, especially that tricky ‘last mile’ to transit, is small-minded thinking. So, what you are saying is we need to be completely unitarian and lose our community identity?
When I was 22, I biked all over town and biked to the coin-op laundry. I was like you; didn’t think I needed a car. Then I entered my career in real estate at age 23 and realized that if I was going to show property or go to appointments a car was needed. My friends/contemporaries realized the same thing, we have finally become adults with responsibilities beyond ourselves.
What developers are doing is taking their profits and not addressing the need for needed infrastructure. The affordable housing that they are promising in order to scar communities are only spoken about during the beginning of the entitlement process. The for-profit developers are using housing as a commodity and to support these projects is only going to raise the stock value.
We need infrastructure that is paid by the developers because our infrastructure budget has a deficit of $5.7billion. We need 100% affordable housing, but we do not need more micro-units and inadequate transit.
If you would read the comments posted here, you may learn something if you are open to it.


Paul Webb February 20, 2023 at 4:18 pm

Something seemingly overlooked is the fact that the development area is defined as proximity to transit stops that may not be constructed until 2015. So, in other words, we can have increased density resulting from proximity to transit stops that do not exist.

Also, remember that but routes can be changed tomorrow by a simple majority vote of the MTS board. I’ve sat in many meetings where people in wheelchairs were crying over the loss of a bus stop near their home.


Paul Webb February 20, 2023 at 4:19 pm

Oops! I meant 2035!


nostalgic February 21, 2023 at 6:28 pm

Police advise you not to wear jewelry. If you carry a purse, do so at your own risk. You could wear a sign that says “my diamond ring isn’t real.” This is LA. Don’t go there.


Will February 21, 2023 at 8:18 pm

The woke comment was definitely in reference to Pat Sexton. Sorry for the unclear language.

At the end of the day, I don’t want LA style traffic which seems to be auto-centric direction we are heading. I’m also 41, married with child, and work in Lakeside. I know most people need to drive as we’ve spent the last 80 years organizing society to do just that with “free” roads.

Outside of commuting I look to avoid driving whenever possible. Driving should be a bit more painful in some ways to help push people towards transit. I also recognize how many people do not drive.


Danna Givot February 23, 2023 at 7:38 pm

It is noteworthy that the Planning Department has moved from talking about “transit-oriented development” – which is clearly defined as within 1/2 mile walking distance from transit – to discussing “transit-supportive” development. However, if one reviews the literature, transit-supportive development is also within 1/2 mile of transit and it is meant to describe the symbiotic relationship between transit and the nearby surrounding high density development. The idea is simple and logical – development within 1/2 mile walking distance of transit will produce passengers who will support transit and transit within 1/2 mile of dense and affordable development will serve those who reside in that housing.

SANDAG research supports this. It tells us that 97% of people in the San Diego region walk to transit (89% walk home) and that 92% of them walk 1/2 mile (10 minutes) or less. So, why would any City Council member vote to make it more difficult on his or her constituents to access transit when the same buildings could be built closer to transit? If you have the power to control how far dense and affordable housing are built from transit, why would you build it more than 1/2 mile away to the detriment of your constituents?

For those who claim people will suddenly “roll” longer distances to transit, that is not supported by the facts. First, they could be doing that now, but they don’t. SANDAG tells us only 1-2% of transit passengers roll (by bike, skateboard or scooters) to transit. Meanwhile, new research tells us that the e-rolling devices are not climate-friendly after all because they generally replace walking or non-e devices, have short lifecycles, require energy and end up in landfills.

The people who most use public transit are the same people who most need affordable housing options. San Diego’s own 2021-2029 Housing Element Assessment of Fair Housing states “The lack of a relationship between public transit, employment opportunities, and affordable housing may impede fair housing choice.” It tells us “the City of San Diego continues to take action to address barriers to opportunity by amending community plans to increase density along transit corridors and near job centers;… working with SANDAG to plan and implement transit improvements that connect people to well-paying job.” Moving dense and affordable housing beyond 1/2 mile from transit would conflict with these efforts to provide equitable and convenient access to transit.

If the City is really interested in creating walkable “villages,” then why not make TPAs 1/2 mile walking distance from transit as SB743 intended and get rid of SDAs altogether? If the City wants “transit-supportive” communities, then encourage high density and affordable housing within 1/2 mile walking distance of existing transit (not transit that may or may not be built in the next 20 to 30 years). That housing will generate passengers for transit, while the transit provides mobility choices for residents. Together the proximal housing and transit options will create the critical mass needed to spur and support economic development to revitalize the communities along the transit corridors.


Mat Wahlstrom February 28, 2023 at 10:33 am

Just now, the City Council voted on the final approval of SDAs (Item 57). Despite deeply informed presentations by Neighbors for a Better San Diego, they passed it with the same 5-4 vote. I made the following comments:

“I need to call out the cynical and degrading characterization of ‘Sustainable Development Areas’ as sustainable. Requiring people to travel more than a half mile to transit isn’t sustainable. Planning only for those who are younger and able isn’t sustainable. Increasing density that doesn’t create new units for housing more than one person to live in isn’t sustainable. Disenfranchising people who are older or infirm or mobility challenged or have families isn’t sustainable. Multiplying exceptions to existing development requirements and verifiable best practices isn’t sustainable. And piling on incentives for profit without requirements for affordability is absolutely not sustainable.

The Orwellian appropriation of the name ‘sustainable’ to describe that which is its opposite is clearly the latest shameful confiscation of the terms of social justice, such as equity and inclusion, being used instead to promote the narrow and selfish interests of real estate developers and the politicians who benefit from their campaign contributions.”


Frank Gormlie February 28, 2023 at 11:37 am

Thanks so much, Mat; made it a post.


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