San Diego Planners Are Wrong About the Scale of SB-10 and the Residents Who Fought It Are Right

by on August 30, 2023 · 8 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By Geoffrey Hueter / San Diego U-T Op-Ed / August 28, 2023

Much of the commentary following the rejection and removal of the proposed Senate Bill 10 implementation from Mayor Todd Gloria’s Housing Action Package has focused on the imagined outcomes of SB 10 rather than looking at the specifics of the proposed regulations.

It is therefore important to clarify what the issues were and why San Diego residents were right to push back against SB 10.

Fundamentally, the problem with the proposed SB 10 implementation was that San Diego did not heed the intended purpose and scale of the state law.

The Planning Department characterized SB 10 as providing “missing middle housing,” which is a specific and well-defined concept in urban planning. It refers to the construction of multi-family housing types that are compatible in scale and appearance with surrounding homes. San Diego has many examples of bungalow courts and quadplexes that were built through World War II according to these principles.

Unfortunately, the Planning Department did not study the parameters of these building forms in creating its proposed regulations. Instead, San Diego supersized its SB 10 implementation to allow three-story, lot-filling apartment blocks. This is not “gentle density” as proponents keep claiming; this is greater than the built density of most of San Diego’s current apartment and townhouse zones.

This excessive scale undermines a key purported benefit of SB 10, namely, that it would increase the inventory of owner-occupied housing. We can validate this hypothesis by looking at what is being built in comparable high-density multi-family zones, and what we find is that developers are building apartments, not condominiums. Conversely, we are not seeing construction of small multi-family housing types in these zones because they don’t offer the same return as much larger buildings. Nor are we seeing developers take advantage of San Diego’s small lot subdivision regulations to create small detached for-sale homes envisioned by SB 10 proponents, even though these regulations have been in place since 2015 and haven’t had to compete with the high densities proposed for SB 10 implementation. If anything, there is immense pressure to tear down existing bungalow courts and small apartment buildings and turn them into much higher density rental housing.

Not only would SB 10 decrease the inventory of detached for-sale homes, but it also would particularly target small starter homes, which, from the perspective of investors, provide the highest return on investment when throwing away an existing home and replacing it with high-density apartments. Would-be first-time homeowners, who cannot afford to compete with investors for these properties, are forced to remain renters. Meanwhile, the price of single-family homes continues to rise dramatically, in part because investors are willing to pay inflated prices for properties based on future income potential when fully redeveloped.

The proposed SB 10 implementation also would have undermined the city’s climate action goals. The Planning Department recommended applying SB 10 to Sustainable Development Areas, which stretch a mile or more from transit that may not exist before 2035, if ever. This would draw development into the city’s sprawling automobile suburbs instead of focusing new development near transit. This concern was made evident at the Planning Commission’s first deliberation on the Housing Action Package in June, when one of the main objections was that it needed to be closer to transit.

Up until the Aug. 3 Planning Commission meeting, the Planning Department was still throwing out ideas about how to make SB 10 work, without understanding or addressing its fundamental problems. By state law, implementation of SB 10 is irreversible. Given this prohibition against fixing our mistakes, we should not be experimenting with SB 10.

Further, exclusion of meaningful input from homeowners during the code development process perpetuated its flaws and led to its ultimate rejection. Going forward, the city should include all stakeholders affected by prospective housing policies, instead of the current approach of dismissing the concerns of half of the city’s residents.

Finally, the focus on SB 10 overshadowed the dozen other proposals in Housing Action Plan 2.0. These include encouraging and facilitating student housing, single-room occupancy residences, family-sized housing, and housing on government land and underutilized commercial parcels, as well as addressing equity through proposals to separate housing from harmful uses and protect tenants. Because of the attention given to SB 10, none of these proposals have received the public scrutiny and discussion they deserve.

Geoffrey Hueter is the chair of Neighbors for a Better San Diego and a resident of Talmadge.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Gravitas August 30, 2023 at 11:20 am

Well written. Spot on. Thanks for catching the duplicity of our city and state “leaders!” Keep fighting.


Julie Meier Wright September 5, 2023 at 3:20 pm

Could not agree with you more. Extremely well-written and Neighbors for a Better San Diego has done an amazing job that demonstrates that involved citizens can make a difference. But continued vigilance is warranted.


Pauline August 31, 2023 at 8:09 am

A lot of this is incoherent or disingenuous, but one main point you are clear about. You are opposed to new neighbors in – even a modest 30′ high – multi-unit homes. That would mean even the quadplexes you tout earlier in the piece.


Paul Webb August 31, 2023 at 2:05 pm

Pauline, there is nothing modest about a 30-foot high, 10 unit apartment building on a typical single family lot. Many lots in the OB/Point Loma area are about 5,ooo square feet. Granted, some are larger, but some are smaller, too, but let’s use 5,000 square feet for illustrative purposes. A ten unit apartment on this lot would result in a residential density of about 87 units per acre. This is approximately the residential density of New York City taken as a whole. There, the average amount of residentially zoned land averages 531 sq. ft. per person.

There would likely be no, or very little, landscaping, setbacks would be minimal, and, oh yeah, no parking. Modest? You tell me.

I’ve seen this movie before. Back in the 70’s before I moved to San Diego to go to graduate planning school, I lived in a neighborhood in west LA that was a mix of bungalows, duplex/triplex structures and the occasional small apartment building (think Huffman six-packs). In other words, a lot like much of OB and the less affluent areas of Point Loma (i.e., not the wooded area or La Playa). When I’ve been back, the area has transitioned to almost entirely three- to five-story, large, boxy multi-family residential structures (I don’t know if they are rentals or condos). Streets are choked with traffic (and this in LA which is light years ahead of San Diego when it comes to transit). Parking is very hard to find.

Pauline, is that how you want to live? I certainly do not. You know, if you moved to LA or NY, that would free up a residence for someone who likes it the way it is here.


Geoff Page August 31, 2023 at 6:59 pm

Well said, Paul!


Julie Meier Wright September 5, 2023 at 3:22 pm

There is a huge difference between planned density and the uncontrolled development we were beginning to see in single-family neighborhoods. I live in planned density but was outraged at the prospect of out-of-control, profit-seeking development in long-time single-family neighborhoods with no provision for parking, traffic mitigation, fire safety and impact on schools.


Ron May August 31, 2023 at 11:57 am

For me, the article proved enlightening with regards to the current practices of the development industry and the recent City of San Diego policies of terminating public input into planning issues, such as protection of zoning and general plan categories, increased height, and zero planning for water resources and parking into the future. But most important for me is the fact that no one wants to impede the escalating cost of land, which is why working class and most middle class people cannot afford to rent in San Diego. An excellent article in the Los Angeles Times underscored the fact the highest unemployment rate and the lowest homeless rate in America is Detroit, which preserved most of their older housing. San Diego should preserve older housing stock as the best space for low income housing and not give in to the developers who would destroy housing stock for high end rentals.


Leighann O'Reilly August 31, 2023 at 4:49 pm

The city SHOULD have started the high density along the major corridors and the trolley, which would have been logical. They started out wrong and have never self-corrected. Also, the original definition of “missing “middle” does not refer to middle income, which Todd Gloria & team has referred. Gloria’s office has discounted San Diego resident’s concerns about new housing codes so why should his future be any different?
Thank you Geoffrey Hueter for all your work with Neighbors for a Better San Diego (NFABSD). Hope to hear from you & NFABSD more often.


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