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San Diego Councilman LaCava proposes 10,000 new housing units on 300 acres of public land

San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava of La Jolla says public land could yield more housing options.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The plan would make housing construction faster and much cheaper, officials say.

A proposal spearheaded by San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava of La Jolla would designate 300 acres of public land for construction of 10,000 housing units that officials say could be built much faster and cheaper than usual.

The land would be divided up for specific projects and prezoned to accelerate financing and avoid neighborhood opposition. City officials also would speed up construction by creating preapproved architectural prototypes.

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

The plan also includes the city creating two special funds: a public land trust to make housing cheaper and an infrastructure fund to overcome hurdles.

While the city would take the lead, LaCava emphasized that other government agencies that share control of large public parcels would need to cooperate and participate.

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

“We know the current process by which the city and other public agencies develop public land is not as effective as it could be,” LaCava told the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee last week. “We tend to work in silos, selling and developing properties one by one.”

San Diego's sports arena property in the Midway District
San Diego’s sports arena property in the Midway District has been mentioned as an example of potential sites for housing on public land.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Though officials haven’t identified specific sites for the housing, the city’s sports arena property in the Midway District was mentioned as an example.

San Diego owns 1,600 properties totaling more than 120,000 acres, but much of that is taken up by parks and city buildings such as libraries.

A survey in 2018 found that about 550 acres of city-owned land could potentially be used for housing, but only 22 sites totaling 54 acres were deemed prime locations. That list didn’t 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 under state law.

San Diego must increase the number of units built per year — which was 6,482 in 2020 — to 13,500 to meet a state-mandated goal of 108,000 more units by 2029.

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

For households making between $15,000 and $120,000 annually, San Diego needs 64,179 more housing units by 2029, but the number of units built for people in that income range during a typical year has been 842, Hisserich said.

The city would need to see construction of units for that income range increase by nearly nine times, making an ambitious plan for new housing on public land that much more crucial, Hisserich said.

She recommended that 45 percent of the new housing be reserved for middle-income residents and the remaining 55 percent be for those with low incomes.

Though the plan is still being developed, city officials said the units would be subsidized housing, with rent restrictions based on how much residents make compared with the area’s median income.

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

She said the savings from using modular construction is relatively minimal on small projects but can be significant on large projects such as those contemplated by the city’s plan.

Another way to reduce costs is prioritizing sites to use for housing that are close to transit, quality schools and parks. Particular locations would be ranked by efficient use of land, amount 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 before a project is designed, Hisserich said.

It could be used to remediate soil contamination, fund nearby parks, boost access to transit or mitigate the impacts of the new housing. For example, if housing is built on a parking lot, the fund could pay for a nearby parking garage.

Land trust

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

The land, which would be supplied by government agencies, would be owned by a nonprofit instead of developers or homeowners.

The trust would have no expiration date, in contrast with most subsidized housing, in which covenants guaranteeing low rents usually last 40 to 60 years.

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Advocates say trusts also are a more efficient use of government housing subsidies because typical subsidies only help initial recipients, while a trust creates a low-cost home that multiple families could occupy over many years.

Critics say land trusts create a kind of second-class homeownership. The owners of homes built on trust land don’t share in the increasing value of the land, so they don’t build wealth on par with traditional homeowners.

LaCava’s proposal to build housing on public land is being embraced by Mayor Todd Gloria and the city Housing Commission.

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