Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Complete Communities: Scourge or Savior?

Part I: Complete Communities
Over the past six months, the international scientific community has been working its tail off to subdue the coronavirus scourge wreaking havoc on the world population. 

Meantime, Americans are taking to the streets demanding the annihilation of other malignant viruses infecting our nation--namely, racist violence by the police and the embedded racism that underlies too many of our country's institutions.

How are San Diego leaders responding to this pandemic moment of economic, political, and life-threatening upheaval?  The answer won't make you proud.  It could make you angry.

Throughout these past months of social turmoil, racial reckoning, and a deadly health crisis,  San Diego's Mayor-- along with city planners and the development industry--have laser-focused their efforts on fast-tracking an extraordinary proposal called "Complete Communities: Housing Solutions and Mobility Choices Initiative" which:
... removes regulatory barriers to housing at all income levels, especially low, very low, and moderate-income households, while investing in neighborhood and mobility amenities, such as recreational opportunities, street trees, linear parks, bicycle facilities, urban plazas, and promenades.
The Complete Communities plan purports to diminish the city's greenhouse gas emissions while it fixes the dilemma of housing unaffordability, and will also:
… provide all residents access to the resources and opportunities necessary to improve the quality of their lives… a healthy environment and thriving communities... to enhance the quality of life for all residents, regardless of their background and identity.
And how will this urbanized Garden of Eden be created?  By enabling multistory redevelopment, substantial population growth, and high densities in neighborhoods and communities throughout San Diego.

The proposal has a magic wand that will eliminate "regulatory barriers" like existing zoning regulations, height and setback restrictions, environmental analyses, and community review.  And ABRACADABRA! a bucket of fairy dust that will guarantee generous financial incentives to builders plus a license to build whatever they see fit to build, whenever and wherever they are ready to build it. 

Part II: Incomplete Communities
You may be wondering why you have never heard of this transformative political initiative to rebuild the physical, social, and--indeed--the racial identity of our city.

It's because Complete Communities was conceived and gestated in private--no citizens' committee, no speeches from the Mayor, no open workshops, no publicized opportunity for your input, questions, or concerns.

There's no other way to say it: Mayor Faulconer has betrayed San Diego voters by handing over control of our city's future to the region's business/builder/growth industry--with the complicity of gullible YIMBY acolytes. 

And you--whether homeowner, renter, citizen, resident, or taxpayer--are not only expected to put on a facemask, your Mayor is also counting on you to don a gag and blindfold when it comes to shaping your neighborhood's future and the city's fate.  

 But the most egregious betrayal of all is that—at root--Complete Communities is a government-sponsored racist proposal.  

Why do I say that?  Consider this: 
  • The housing element of San Diego's General Plan informs us that our city "must have an adequate supply of housing to maintain its economic competitive edge and house its workforce."  It warns that, "with the emergence of San Diego's knowledge-based economy it is critical to ensure there is a steady supply of housing coming online to meet the needs of this diverse group of workers." 
  • Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Hispanic and Asian residents living in San Diego increased by 21% and 24%, respectively.  White and Black residents declined by 2% and 11% over the same period.
  • SANDAG predicts that these trends will continue for at least another decade. The forecast says that the city's Hispanic population will account for 35% of the total population.  For the Asian population it's 16%.  For the Black population it's 6%.  The White population will decrease to 38%.

  • The poverty rate within the Black and Brown communities is more than double that in San Diego's White community.

The truth is, Complete Communities it designed to meet more of the economic needs of the development industry than the need for adequate, affordable housing for the city's "diverse group of workers" and for other essential sectors of our population    

As for betrayal, consider this: During the postwar decades following World War II, the federal government provided loans, subsidies, and enabling legislation to developers to build extensive tracts of housing on the outskirts of existing cities.

War veterans and families also received government loans and subsidies, enabling them to leave crowded cities for clean/green new lives in rapidly proliferating suburban developments.

Back then, the beneficiaries this new government housing policy were--with intent--almost exclusively White families.

Fast forward to 2020.  The Complete Communities proposal, with its mandates for vigorous urbanization of San Diego neighborhoods, flips the proverbial American Dream of Suburban Paradise on its head.  That's not necessarily a bad thing. 

But notice that--intentionally or not--the beneficiaries of San Diego's newest housing policy are once again almost exclusively White individuals and couples.  

Part III: Expediting the Exodus

As envisioned by the Complete Communities proposal, the overriding majority of new construction falls into two categories: 
a) high-end "luxury" apartments, and
b) micro/mini/small studio and one-bedroom units.
The proposal uses a complex formula for creating "affordable" apartment units but the numbers come nowhere close to meeting the actual housing needs of our city's population (take another look at SANDAG forecasts).

The formula also avoids the reality that dense redevelopment throughout the city clears away existing affordable housing and displaces families and individuals who now occupy them. 

And is it impolite to point out that the formula aims for an indecently scant number of family-sized housing units considered affordable to moderate/ low-income households?

Bottom line
  1. We know that the era of suburbanization intentionally left Black and Brown families in the lurch, forcing them to make their own way in neglected, decaying cities.  
  2. We know that the Mayor's proposed urbanization initiative leaves San Diego's Black and Brown families in the lurch by forcing them out of city boundaries through redevelopment and displacement while providing shamefully few opportunities to stay.  
  3. We know that the intended beneficiaries of Complete Communities are combinations of:  young, well-paid singles and couples touching down in San Diego for a few years; upper-income retirees;  vacation rental clients;   corporate sleepovers for expense-account clients; and   safe parking spots for foreign and domestic investors.
  4. We know that there's something profoundly dishonest about a scheme that builds too much of what we don't need in order to get a small fraction of what we do need.
  5. We know that the city already has the capacity to accommodate growth under existing regulations and the community planning process.  
Complete Communities should be jettisoned. Once the pandemic dust settles, once we can go eye to eye with our elected officials, that's the time for a thorough airing of fresh proposals to map an equitable future for San Diego.