Making It Easier to Build Won't Help
It is often convenient to blame city planners for the affordable housing crisis. After all, those affected have no other public forum to vent their concerns, least of all toward those who are profiting off of the crisis on a project-by-project basis. Sadly, this blame is often misguided because planners do not produce housing.
A case study of the profit-maximizing, decision-making that is driving the affordability crisis is downtown San Diego. Construction cranes are up all over, and a $6.4 billion development juggernaut is rolling through. Nearly 10,000 new units have been permitted by the downtown planning board over the last four years, and the fast and generous permit approval process is cited as a model by developers for other regions. Underlying this process is a programmatic master plan that eliminates the need for project-level environmental review, lax standards on deviations from the zoning code, and a public hearing process that is limited to design review, often bypassing complex questions about density and community impacts. The process is overlaid with myriad incentives in the form of density bonuses for affordable housing and green building.
This kind of permit streamlining that supply-siders clamor for in state and local legislation for land-use planning and zoning reform is a developers’ dream come true. Yet, this same socially blind approach to planning has led to more affordable housing units being demolished than being built, and a 60 percent spike in unsheltered homeless downtown in the last two years.