On Friday, February 19, 2016 the San Diego Section of the CA APA hosted its first luncheon program of the year, entitled “Gentrification vs. Revitalization: Planning Policies to Help Prevent Displacement.” For all of us APA volunteers who put the event together, the event was a success not just in terms of attendance and logistics (including the great food & graphic support), but also in terms of the rich diversity of the panelists and their in-depth policy discussion.
The luncheon was held at the Sherman Heights Community Center in Sherman Heights, one of the oldest urban residential neighborhoods in San Diego that has seen significant demographic changes throughout its history, including now. The neighborhood is currently majority-Latino population with the average household median income below the regional average. As rents have increased and the population of Latinos has decreased, the neighborhood faces challenges of gentrification/displacement, making the venue location the perfect setting for the discussion.
The panelists included an elected local official representing “gentrifying communities” (Councilman David Alvarez from the City of San Diego); a member of a community planning group (Chair Vicki Granowitz of the North Park Planning Committee); a market-rate housing developer (Zaheen Chowdhury, Project Manager for Trestle Development), and an affordable housing developer (Anne Wilson, Senior Vice President for Community Housing Works). In addition to the diversity in their professional backgrounds, the panel was also notable for being demographically diverse, with half being female, half being persons of color, and one from the LGBT community. Having this kind of diversity on the panel helped broaden the discussion and allowed the audience to hear multiple perspectives on a controversial and complex issue.
In addition to the diversity of the panelists, there was also diversity in the discussion and ideas proposed. The questions and topics were focused on various planning policies to address gentrification and displacement, including inclusionary housing, neighborhood preference for income-restricted units, microunits, community opposition, rent control, and retail/business displacement. Common themes included the need to increase housing supply through smart growth and infill development; review of regulations and development impact fees that hinder new construction; improved communication/outreach to community members; and perhaps most important, the need for leadership from elected officials, planning staff, and all of us as planning professionals to confront opposition and advocate for these policies. Among specific ideas was a proposal from Councilmember Alvarez to use the City of San Diego’s property tax increment to help pay for infrastructure in distressed communities experiencing gentrification, which would incentivize developers to build more housing by potentially waiving or lowering development impact fees. Another proposal from Zaheen Chowdhury was increasing the availability of micro-units by reforming municipal ordinances to reduce parking requirements and change the structure of development impact fees so that micro-units could be more economically-viable for developers and serve as an additional source of affordable housing for local residents.
But perhaps the biggest success of the luncheon was the diversity in audience, not just in terms of demographics, but also their professional background/affiliations. At the beginning of the event, an informal “show-of-hands” poll was taken, and nearly half of the attendees were non-APA members. According to the registration and sign-in sheets, attendees outside of the planning profession included (but were not limited to) staff from elected officials, environmental non-profits, community-based organizations, real estate professionals, local media, and maybe most important, local neighborhood residents, many of whom, are from the “gentrifying” neighborhoods. This provides a wonderful opportunity for us not only on the local APA Board of Directors, but also APA members, to reach out to these individuals who attended, invite them to future events, continue to hear their voices in future planning forums, and eventually encourage them to be become members of the APA.
In closing, I’d like to express my appreciation and thanks to the panelists, Sherman Heights Community Center who hosted us, and all of the volunteers for all of their hard work in making this event a success. In addition, a special thanks to Rick Engineering for sponsoring so much of my time to coordinate the event and providing day-of registration and logistical assistance.