Housing the Next 1 Million in San Diego County

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By Philip J. Bona, AIA

Philip J. Bona, AIA, is 2017 President of the San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, member of the AIA National Strategic Council, and practicing architect & planner with BNIM (recipient of the 2011 AIA National Architecture Firm Award).

Courtesy of San Diego Association of Governments

What is the common thread that connects California’s housing affordability crisis with AIA Architects? Not design, not opportunity, but leadership! Architects are the resident experts about all things having to do with housing, as well as placemaking, neighborhood vitalization, and the form and composition of density. When I accepted the mallet and mantra of president of AIA San Diego (AIA|SD) for 2017, I looked for the most important topic in the region affecting architects, and for me that was housing affordability. But it soon became apparent that, while there were blue ribbon groups, mayoral taskforces, and city council subcommittees; home builders and others in the building industry, and numerous places of higher learning debating and struggling for answers, there were no architects at the table. Architects—designers and innovators of the built environment—were by and large excluded from the conversation and even the public debate on housing density and growth. As I asked around, I heard two reasons architects were excluded: first, “Architects are in the pocket of the developers” and thus not trustworthy, and, second, “Actually, we didn’t really know where the architects were.” Where are the architects to lead the housing affordability discussion?

I believe that any solutions around the housing crisis belong to the experts, architects who daily create the settings, shapes, density, massing, amenities, and stylings of housing environments all over California (and the nation, for that matter). So, in the spring of 2016, AIA|SD joined together with a newly formed coalition of non-profits, housing advocates, government officials, and the business community to address the situation.

This group, Housing YOU Matters, brought professionals, associations, city officials, and stakeholders together with a common purpose and message about the need to strategize ways solve the housing crisis. Together, the Building Industry Association, Habitat for Humanity, the Urban Land Institute, the Association of Realtors, the San Diego Architectural Foundation, the AIA|SD, and over 40 other entities accepted the task of disrupting the status quo and finding solutions. The group prepared a conference agenda for the year, to educate the public and professionals about the issues surrounding the severe shortage of new housing in the region, to promote a wider range of housing prices for all income groups, and to establish a discourse on regulatory reform with the City of San Diego.

Meeting regularly, we agreed to fund a marketing consultant to promote the enterprise and created a brand, the “Year of Housing.” We developed a robust calendar of conferences and activities to engage and inform San Diegans and the marketplace, while promoting a new, young generation of YIMBYs (“Yes in my back yard”). Unique Educational Conferences are being hosted in 2017 by such groups as the San Diego’s City Council, Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, the Urban Land Institute, San Diego Architectural Foundation, Housing YOU Matters, and AIA|SD, among others.

Known as America’s Finest City, San Diego is the 8th largest city in the United States by population. In 2015, its Association of Governments (SANDAG) completed the “San Diego Forward: Regional Plan,” which forecast 1 million more citizens in the county by 2050. Only 50% of this growth will be from immigration into California, while the other 50% will be births from current inhabitants. This added demand translates to 400,000 additional housing units, and that will require construction of at least 12,000 units per year countywide. Less than half that was built in 2016, continuing the trend of the past decade.

In the City of San Diego alone, there will be over a half million more people by 2050, which translates to the need for 211,000 additional housing units. While downtown San Diego is booming in 2017, with new high-rise housing (mostly luxury with about 10% affordable), at full build-out, downtown will comprise only 90,000 residential units—which is 55,000 units more than existed in 2016. 90% of San Diego’s buildable, residential zoned land is already occupied, and much of the remaining 10% is considered unbuildable. Only mixed-use, commercial, and light industrial zoned land and city-owned land are available for future housing growth.

San Diego housing costs are already among the top five highest in the United States. It is a crisis that has impacted housing affordability at all levels, but especially workforce housing. With the median cost of housing today at over $550,000 and the projected median cost to be over $1.6 million in 2050, prices continue to escalate to more than what the market will bear based on personal income and lifestyle. According to “Apartment List Rentanomics,” more than a quarter of San Diego renters are spending half of their income on housing today, and rising costs are creating increasing hardship for the county’s working and middle-income classes. This rate of housing cost increase is not sustainable. Left to the marketplace for the next 33 years, and with continued slower acceleration of personal income, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren face certain hardship. As a generation, they could encounter $7,000 to $9,000 per month mortgage payments, and would need to make about $16,000 per month in household income at 50% housing costs, along with student loan debt. Should a hard recession hit, they face a generation of homelessness more severe than previously known in America.

Using the successful Regional Urban Design Charrette model for “Housing the Next Million In the Silicon Valley,” led by AIA San Mateo County in 2000, when I was its chapter president, AIA San Diego and AIA Palomar are leading the same effort for San Diego County in 2017. In February and March, interdisciplinary teams were formed of volunteer architects, planners, landscape architects, engineers, builders, universities, community representatives, developers, city agencies, community banks, realtors and others. Supported by a structure of monthly workshops, the 12 teams were presented issues and case-study opportunities to become familiar with regional and local solutions for a leaner housing industry and more resilient and sustainable land use. In November, the teams will meet for a two-day Regional Urban Design Charrette, to study 12 of the transit growth areas previously identified by SANDAG. The goal is to explore and employ best practices in planning and urban design, to visualize ways that the county can absorb 400,000 additional housing units in a smart, healthy, sustainable, mobile, and resilient way.

In the spirit of the AIA’s mission to be of ever-increasing service to society and to promote excellence in the built environment, members of the AIA San Diego and AIA Palomar Chapters have stepped up as leaders to facilitate local conversations with other professionals, developers, regulators, and the public—within their neighborhoods—in order to elevate the issues and strategize how to develop solutions that address the need for new, sustainable, and ministerially approved housing, to align population and housing growth.

So, some food for thought: How can the model being applied in San Diego be repeated, so that AIA leaders around California stimulate the conversation in their communities, to promote positive, sustainable, and resilient strategies? The ultimate goal would be to make each and every city in the state a better place to live, work, play, love, learn, shop, and even farm in healthy, sustainable balance with our climate and local ecology, while growing a vibrant economy for the benefit of future generations, regardless of age, ethnicity, or income level. It is leadership and design in action.



The AIACC represents the interests of more than 11,000 architects and allied professionals in California. Founded in 1944, The AIACC's mission supports architects in their endeavors to improve the quality of life for all Californians by creating more livable communities, sustainable designs and quality work environments. Today, The AIACC is the largest component of the National AIA organization.

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    Terri Beitel

    Hallelluia! Where will these tiny homes / modular homes be built? Will they be in different communities in San Diego ? I want to purchase one !

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