An Open Letter to Councilmember Chris Cate

Councilmember Cate:

I'll be up front with you:  I am not a constituent and have never voted for a Republican in my life.  I don't agree with you on many things, and might not even vote for you if I was a constituent.  But I have always perceived you to be a principled man.  After today's council action concerning short-term rentals, I actually think we share some of the same first principles.  And, to be honest, us liberals need your help.

I'm sure you've seen some of the consternation from the left when it comes to implementation of the Climate Action Plan and SANDAG's Measure A.  Despite unanimous support for the CAP from the City Council and national acclaim, our City is already skittish about taking the necessary steps to hit the targets.  The usual solutions are being suggested:  massive infrastructure spending on transit and bike lanes, greater regulation of developers, and perhaps measures related to mandating terms in contracts between building owners and businesses. These are typical liberal techniques to solve a problem (not that there is anything wrong with that). Similarly, the City has been operating under an affordable housing crisis year after year with no solutions arising.  Some progressives, including your former opponent Carol Kim, propose the solution is not more market-rate housing to increase supply, but rather new tax revenue to fund government-built affordable housing, all constructed under a PLA.  Again, typical liberal solutions to the City's ongoing problems.

But as you know, there is more than one way to tackle a problem.  So here is what I am asking: take an active stance to help the City attack climate change and increase the supply of housing by using traditional, conservative methods.  Given the history of the Republican Party and its general denial of climate change, conservatives have been largely absent from the discussion when it comes to policies to combat climate change.  Likewise, the housing crisis plaguing America's biggest cities is being addressed by progressive policies given the liberal stranglehold on nearly every urban area in our nation. As a result, most of the policies at play are progressive: massive infrastructure spending, industry regulation, and heavier taxation.  I support some of these policies, but they are failing.  Perhaps what we really need is a conservative attack on the problem.  And perhaps reimagining climate change policy can breathe some new life into the Republican party after this disastrous national campaign.

So what exactly am I talking about? Let's start with one easy solution that gets at both housing affordability and climate change: parking reform.  Currently, as you know, the City of San Diego requires almost every development, residential or commercial, to include a certain number of parking spots.  This government mandate is entirely unrelated to actual demand and drives up the cost of housing by thousands of dollars.  Because the city dictates the construction of excessive parking, residents are incentivized to drive when they might not otherwise do so.  In effect, the development of our city is distorted by the government's belief that it knows better than the free market regarding the number of spaces to include in any given construction project.  The developer ends up paying to build the parking spot and the resident has to buy or rent it, even if he has no intention of using it.  Even ignoring the harm to the free market, this makes no sense in the age of Uber.  At least one developer has concluded that there is demand for units without parking and he could rent the units for half the price of the current market price.  This shift away from personal ownership of automobiles is only going to accelerate in the future, but we are building new developments today that will last for decades premised on our government's antiquated notions of the needs of the past.  Times have changed, but our regulations haven't.

I am not saying the city should mandate that there is a maximum number of parking spaces allowed.  Likewise, giving developers freedom to choose the amount of parking does not mean no parking will be built.  If property owners are given the option to build on their property as dictated by the market and residents were allowed to decide for themselves whether they need a parking spot, those residents may decide to spend less on housing without included parking and instead rely on a bike, public transit, Car2Go, or Uber/Lyft to get around.  Instead of buying a car and spending money on gasoline, they could be purchasing bikes from local shops and paying the salaries of local, independent contractors driving Ubers.  At the same time, we could move towards the mobility goals in the Climate Action Plan without costing the government one penny.  Moreover, we could create more affordable housing without government subsidies towards rent.  This would be a true conservative solution to multiple major problems, all premised on reliance on the free market and strong property rights.

Removing these government regulations will also spur innovation.  Our current regulations lock in the status quo: every person owns a car, drives to his local stores and to work, and requires a parking spot at each end.  Our parking regulations implicitly mandate this culture, but this paradigm makes less sense every day.  Perhaps future businesses won't need parking spots because they rely on cheap delivery instead of walk-in customers.  They could keep prices low if they weren't required to buy or lease parking spots with their shop, but our parking regulations inhibit innovation by saddling the business with the cost of those spots regardless of actual need.  If anything, we are creating a tax on innovative business strategies and new ways of living.  As I have seen in your work related to AirBnb, I know you see the error in such a strategy.

Now, many will say that if buildings don't include parking, people will just park on the street, taking up already valuable public spots.  This is only true, however, because our city is operating those spaces inefficiently by "renting" them at below-market prices.  Although on-street parking spaces are a public good, there is no reason for the City to pay to pave and maintain the spaces and install smart parking meters only to charge static, below-market prices or to give the spaces away for free.  With current technology and hardware already in place since 2014, the City could dynamically price parking, adjusting the rate based on demand for the spots.  This not only increases city revenue, it ensures there are always open spots and represents the most efficient use of city resources.  The result? An end to government subsidization of automobile use by supporting free market principles. Moreover, it leads to increased revenue that can be used to avoid further taxation.  The City agreed in 2014 to spend more money on smart parking meters that currently aren't being used in the way they were intended.  If that doesn't constitute government waste to be avoided, I don't know what does.

San Diego is unique among the major cities in having a Republican mayor and strong conservative presence in the City.  This places San Diego in a one-of-a-kind position to help reframe the Republican Party for our diverse and urban future.  If the Republican Party wants to advance after the Trump disaster and make inroads into our urban communities, it needs to engage on the issues confronting our urban areas and help address climate change by proposing new solutions rather than adopting a reactive stance.  If Republicans would rather cede this territory to the progressives, we are only going to see progressive policies.  I hope you can show our City that the conservatives have just as much to add to the spectrum of climate change solutions by really considering where the city can cut regulations that distort the market, unnecessarily drive up costs of housing, and dis-incentivize the use of transit and other modes of transportation.  A great place to start would be an across the board elimination of parking minimums in our planning code and implementation of smart, dynamic pricing of on-street parking.  If you can demonstrate that the Republicans are the party of new ideas that actually tackle our most-pressing problems, perhaps you can help reinvent the Republican Party on real conservative principles.

 Thanks for listening.