In San Diego’s quest for more housing, ‘unlimited’ height, density shows results
Construction began this week at 901 West Washington St. in Mission Hills, where the developer Soheil Nakhshab built 54 studios. He compares the design of each unit to a Swiss army knife, with built-in tables and beds that fold into the walls.
The project would not have been possible without Complete Communities, San Diego’s most aggressive attempt to date to encourage high-density housing near public transportation.
Approved by City Council in November 2020, just a month before the departure of Mayor Kevin Faulconer and five council members, Complete Communities allows developers to build apartments of unlimited density and height if they agree to book a much larger share of homes as affordable housing than would otherwise be required.
The program is designed to resist political and neighborhood opposition to individual projects, allowing developers to bypass the planning commission and city council and obtain building permits directly from city employees. The result was the rapid approval of larger projects with smaller, cheaper homes.
Sites zoned for single-family homes are not eligible for whole communities, regardless of their proximity to public transportation.
RELATED: With “Complete Communities,” Faulconer Comes Up With One Last Affordable Housing Plan
Nakhshab said his project, which does not include off-street parking, would open up Mission Hills to more young professionals who don’t want the expense of owning a car and can’t afford the expensive single-family homes that dominate the neighborhood. .
“What we’re trying to do is give them the opportunity to live in a thriving, vibrant neighborhood with tons of public amenities at an affordable price,” Nakhshab said.
Four projects have been approved under Full Communities, with 10 more approvals pending and more appearing every month. And, if the goal of the program was to get more housing built without the costly and time-consuming process of updating zoning laws, early results show it’s working.
In total, the 14 projects include 864 housing units, including 211 with guaranteed affordable restricted rents for very low or middle income tenants. If the sites were built according to their official zoning, they would allow 286 dwellings.
Unlimited height may conjure up images of skyscrapers, but most projects are eight stories or less. Larger projects trigger costly building code requirements that would likely make most of them impractical. Complete Communities also imposes a heavier approval process for buildings over 95 feet.
Five of the sites, including Nakhshab in Mission Hills, would likely not include any affordable housing without the full communities, as they are zoned for less than 10 homes. This exempts them from city tax. Inclusive Affordable Housing Ordinancewhich requires developers to set aside 10% of a project’s units as affordable for low-income tenants or pay a fee to support the construction of affordable units elsewhere.
Nakhshab said adhering to the site’s low-density zoning would force it to target only the wealthiest buyers.
“I (should) build super high-end luxury just to recoup my initial base in properties,” Nakhshab said. “It doesn’t add value to our community. It doesn’t activate our community.”
And the program is proving attractive not only to market-rate developers, but also to affordable housing developers. Littorala 126-unit affordable housing complex under construction next to the Grantville light rail station, is another Complete Communities project.
Marie Allen, project manager for the developer, Affirmed Housing, said it was not the offer of unlimited height or density that benefited the project. This was relief from the Development Impact Fee, which the city charges developers for each home they build. The funds help fund neighborhood infrastructure projects.
Complete Communities exempts affordable homes that are rent-restricted, or any unit 500 square feet or less, from paying the Development Impact Fee. Instead, each project is charged a “neighborhood improvement fee” based on the size of the lot. Market-priced homes over 500 square feet receive a sliding shed on development impact fees.
RELATED: Coming to Grantville: More Affordable Housing…and Wider Roads?
Allen said the resulting savings of around $1 million helped tremendously when applying for state tax credits and allowed the project to finish funding and begin construction much sooner. .
“The savings from Complete Communities meant we needed less state subsidy,” Allen said. “And the less we apply for state subsidies, the more competitive we are. If we’re not competitive, we still have to wait six to nine months (to apply for tax credits).”
Complete Communities projects also include:
- 3090 Polk Avenuethe former site of MissionGathering church and The Irenic concert hall, where Streamline Development Group is planning 137 apartments which it says will provide “a whole new work-from-home experience”.
- 4222 Georgia Streetwhere a single-family house and a courtyard apartment would be replaced by 31 apartments on six floors with two parking spaces.
- 1959 Harrison Ave. in Logan Heights, where a single-family home will be replaced by 32 apartments. The site is a three-minute walk from the 25th & Commercial light rail station.
The program has also had counterintuitive policy impacts. The number of affordable rent-restricted units a developer must include in complete communities is based on the official site zoning. But the potential for unlimited density makes this zoning irrelevant, at least in terms of the total number of homes allowed.
This means, at least in theory, that low-density zoning would be more attractive to developers looking to use whole communities because it would result in less rent-restricted housing than higher-density zoning. In practice, it is still unclear whether the program is used more on sites zoned with lower density.
RELATED: Coronado Still Waiting for California to Crack Down on Housing Plan
While Complete Communities is proving effective in getting more housing built, it also arouses opposition from residents resistant to change and growth in their neighborhoods.
This resistance plays out in Normal Heights, where developer Seamus Garland plans to build a seven-story, 175-unit building at the intersection of Adams Avenue and 35th Street. the Normal Heights Community Planning Group voted earlier this month to oppose the project.
Residents at the April 5 planning group meeting blasted the proposal as too tall, too dense and deficient in parking. Board member Frances Prichett asked; “What does the community get out of it?”
Resident Adam Deutsch said, “This project just doesn’t fit the community plan.”
Opposition grew with the realization that the project would pay a small fraction of the development impact fee that would normally be charged because almost all of the 175 apartments are 500 square feet or less. Garland estimates the project will pay just under $326,000 in neighborhood improvement fees and development impact fees.
Garland said without the Complete Communities rebate, an equivalent project would pay about $2 million in impact fees. But, since zoning limits the site to just 26 homes, a project that meets that density limit would cost around $338,000. Fees would be significantly lower for a purely commercial building, such as a convenience store or fast food restaurant, which Garland said was his only financially feasible alternative.
Introducing Garland to the planning group in March was what sparked neighborhood opposition. The presentation was not required, but he said he thought the neighbors deserved to know what was going on.
“I knew what I was getting into,” Garland said. “It’s a good forum to answer everyone’s questions. At least I owe it to the community.”