What Does an Affordable San Diego Look Like? Where to Put 100,000 New Housing Units

In a post earlier this year, I calculated that to freeze housing prices and move closer to affordability, the City of San Diego needs to build 100,000 new housing units by 2020.  Right now, the City has a little over 500,000 housing units.  Adding 100,000 more, therefore is about a 20 percent increase.  As explained in that post, that's about 19,000 units per year when we have been building around 2,000 units per year, on average.  In other words, a massive change.

But that's just a number.  Inspired by the comments of Scott Lewis on the Voice of San Diego Podcast, I decided to see how hard it would be to find a place to put those 100,000 new units.  The answer, I have to admit, surprised me.  I started to draw on a map and quickly hit the 100,000 goal without trying too hard.

Before I reveal the map, here were my initial rules: the housing should be on major transit lines that will exist by 2020.  All of the units I added were either on the trolley or a Bus Rapid Transit Line.  As often as possible, I wanted to use real projects or official projections.  I also wanted to avoid skyscrapers anywhere other than in downtown San Diego.  For the most part, I aimed for less that 100 dwelling-units per acre, with most of the areas for growth receiving around 50 units per acre.  As this excellent guide shows, that mostly means three to six story buildings.  

To be clear, this is a very rough estimate: I am sure I included some land parcels that couldn't handle the density, and actually getting this many units built is a whole different issue.  Also, I am not saying these specific parcels are the best suited for new development.  I simply started with areas that popped in my head and stopped when I got to 100,000.  The only point is to show that a massive new growth spurt in the city would not intrude on most neighborhoods and would involve only areas directly adjacent to transit.   

So here is my map.  I tried to color-code each geographic area and include the number of units proposed.  Dividing the number of units by the specified acreage will give you an idea of the density. 


When zoomed all the way out, it's striking how little area would need to be redeveloped to handle 100,000 new units.  Many other obvious areas for growth are untouched.  For example, I didn't add anything in Hillcrest beyond the Gateway project and didn't touch San Ysidro.  This also ignores "lighter" methods for adding additional units, like granny flats that could be added behind single family homes.  If we could actually encourage development in these areas near transit in addition to all other growth, we could have a much more affordable city.   

We could do this.  It's not that hard.  Not only is this not adding much density in the vast majority of the City, but adding this relatively light new development could really benefit the areas where it is built.  If the City wanted to get serious about making San Diego more affordable, it would be helpful to do an official version of this: set a goal of how many units we need and prioritize the areas where they should be built.