The Coast News Group
Community CommentaryOpinion

Limiting density is not the answer to affordability crisis

Carlsbad Councilwoman Cori Schumacher’s letter, “Addressing development concerns” (Jan. 24), exemplifies a common practice of public officials to speak out of both sides of their mouths.
She laments that “we are losing … the affordability of our downtown area,” thanks to the “luxury condos that are dominating these projects.” But simultaneously wants to “limit density along the coast and along coastal transit corridors.”
A local government’s single most decisive tool for generating housing affordability, and arguably also environmental friendliness, is density. Period. There may be sound reasons to balance those goods against other competing interests. But tradeoffs should be clearly articulated, not misrepresented as having our cake and eating it too.
Limiting density is largely causing the affordability crisis in the first place. Basic economics: if demand goes up but supply doesn’t, prices rise. Ms. Schumacher’s prescription of further constraining supply in a super high demand environment would be enormously counterproductive to her goal “affordable coastal living” for low- to middle-income demographics, including “young people” and “seniors.”
Cities with “elastic” housing stocks that keep pace with demand are more affordable. Pundits often cite Tokyo, thanks to its construction-friendly laws. It’s legitimate not to want your town to look like Tokyo — though a hyperbolic comparison, as our coastal downtowns barely include mid-rises, let alone sky-scrapers. But don’t be misled that drastically arresting densification wouldn’t necessarily trade-off affordability.
Ms. Schumacher chides “developers who are only looking to make a profit” (not the homeowners who chose to sell?). Yet I doubt many developers could keep a project solvent, let alone lucrative, under her no-density-but-still-affordable vision.
“Luxury condos” dominate new construction because politicians won’t allow builders sufficient density to satisfy that top tranche of demand, or to cross-subsidize negative cash flow “affordable” units within a project. Even a developer with a heart of gold may have little choice but to maximize rents from the tiny density she’s allowed, in order to cover her considerable up-front costs (land, parking, financing, compliance). If you severely limit a grocer’s shelf space, don’t be mystified that he taps out the steak-and-wine market before stocking rice and beans.
If not through cash flow from more units, developers make affordable projects pencil out only by taking big subsidies to reduce costs. The lion’s share invariably comes from the feds and state. Distant taxpayers might reasonably wonder why they should subsidize affordable living in coastal California, simply because coastal municipalities refuse to realize the enormous market potential of their existing assets. Like someone panhandling from a gilded chair.
Even the addition of higher-end units helps the total regional “portfolio” of affordability. Many households who could afford to move into newer, higher-end digs would do so, opening up older construction to lower-income households. This process, aka “filtering,” is historically the main force behind most housing affordability nationwide.
Ms. Schumacher’s ecological concerns — sea-level rise, runoff, etc. — are dubious. Denser cities are much “greener” per capita than less dense cities, because people generally occupy less space more efficiently and drive less. Carlsbad is one of the most concentrated employment centers in North County. If people can’t afford to live nearby, they’ll simply settle farther inland, where longer commutes and hotter temperatures require higher energy consumption, thus displacing and exacerbating their carbon footprint — still with ramifications in Carlsbad.
Dan Brendel

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