San Diego offers 10,000 new homes on 300 acres of public land


San Diego officials last week unveiled plans to designate 300 acres of public land for the construction of 10,000 homes that could be built much faster and cheaper than usual.

The land would be divided for specific projects and pre-zoned to speed up funding and avoid neighborhood opposition. City officials would also speed up construction by creating pre-approved architectural prototypes.

These efforts and a focus on larger projects – around 10 developments of 1,000 units each – would reduce the cost per unit from the current $ 550,000 to around $ 300,000, city officials said.

The ambitious proposal, which is led by council member Joe LaCava, also includes the city’s creation of two special funds: a public land trust to make housing cheaper and an infrastructure fund to overcome barriers.

As the city takes the lead, LaCava stressed that other government agencies sharing control of large public plots should cooperate and participate.

Potential partner agencies he mentioned include federal, state, county, transit agencies, public schools, and community colleges.

“We know that the current process by which the city and other public bodies develop public lands is not as effective as it could be,” LaCava told the Land Use and Development Committee on Thursday. city ​​council housing. “We tend to work in silos, selling and developing properties one by one. “

San Diego Pechanga Arena

(KC Alfred / The San Diego Unio / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Although authorities have not identified specific sites for accommodation, the ownership of the city’s sports arena was mentioned as an example.

San Diego has 1,600 properties totaling over 120,000 acres, but much of it is occupied by parks and city buildings like libraries.

A 2018 survey found that around 550 acres of city-owned land could potentially be used for housing, but only 22 sites totaling 54 acres were considered prime locations. This list did not include the sports arena site.

The proposal could help double the number of housing units built each year in San Diego, a daunting goal that is required by state law.

San Diego must increase the number of units built per year – which was 6,482 in 2020 – to 13,500 to meet the state’s target of 108,000 more units by 2029.

But a consultant working for LaCava, Helmi Hisserich, said the problem is arguably worse when the number of low- and middle-income units is factored in.

For households earning between $ 15,000 and $ 120,000 per year, San Diego needs an additional 64,179 housing units by 2029, but the number of units built for people in this income bracket over a period of Typical year was 842, she said.

The city would need to see unit construction for this income bracket increase nearly nine times, which would make an ambitious plan for new housing on public land all the more crucial, Hisserich said.

To ensure that projects effectively cover this population, she recommended that 45% of new housing be reserved for middle-income residents and that the remaining 55% be reserved for low-income people.

While the plan is still under development, city officials said the units will be subsidized housing, with rent restrictions based on residents’ income relative to the region’s median income.

Hesserich, who previously worked on housing issues for the city of Los Angeles for two decades, said a key to reducing the unit cost from $ 550,000 to $ 300,000 would be to use pre-built modular housing. in some cases.

She said the savings from using modular construction are relatively minimal on small projects, but they can become significant on large projects such as those envisioned by the city plan.

Another way to cut costs is to use “parametric modeling” to help determine the best public land to use for housing, which involves prioritizing sites close to quality public transport, schools, and parks. Particular locations would be ranked based on efficient land use, number of units, views, and other criteria.

A key element of the proposal is an infrastructure fund estimated at $ 500 million. The money would help solve problems or boost the viability of a site even before a project is conceived, Hesserich said.

It could be used to clean up contaminated soils, finance nearby parks, promote access to public transit or mitigate the impacts of new housing. For example, if the dwelling is built on a parking lot, the fund could pay for nearby parking.

A land trust

Another element of the proposal is the creation of a public land trust, which could reduce the cost of housing by allowing people to buy only their house, not the land it is on.

The land, which would be provided by government agencies, would be owned by a non-profit organization instead of developers or owners.

In addition to reducing costs, the trust would not have an expiration date. This is in stark contrast to most subsidized housing, where clauses guaranteeing low rents typically last between 40 and 60 years.

Advocates claim that trusts are also a more efficient use of government housing grants, as typical grants only help initial beneficiaries, while a trust creates a low-cost home that several families could occupy for many years. .

Critics say land trusts create a sort of second-class property. Owners of houses built on trust land do not share the growing value of the land, so they do not create wealth on an equal basis with traditional owners.

Board member Sean Elo-Rivera proposed last winter that San Diego explore creating public land trusts beyond the only existing trust in the city, which is in Nestor, just east of Imperial. Beach.
Although his idea was not very successful at the time, LaCava’s proposal to build housing on public land was adopted by Mayor Todd Gloria and the city’s Housing Commission.

Councilmember Vivian Moreno, land use committee member, welcomed LaCava’s proposal but reiterated that other government agencies must be involved.

“It has to be a regional approach,” she said. “It can’t just be the city of San Diego.”

The city’s independent budget analyst agreed to study the proposal.

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