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What can the music of Paul Simon and Michael Jackson teach us about San Diego’s housing crisis?  In the work of the Voices of Our City Choir, who performed at the Forum on Housing and Inequality in San Diego on February 28, familiar songs such as “Man in the Mirror” became statements about the humanity and dignity of the homeless.  Their singing provided an uplifting respite from the day’s presentations, but also underscored an important theme of the Forum: changing the narrative around housing.

Hosted by the Institute for Innovative Governance at San Diego State’s School of Public Affairs, the one-day event brought together members from the public, private, and non-profit sectors for an open public discussion on housing affordability and social inequality with the goal of developing a research agenda for the next five years.  In light of Governor Newsome’s call for “a Marshall Plan for affordable housing” in his inaugural address, the need for research in support of effective housing policy is more pressing than ever.

Nico Calavita set the tone for the day by connecting housing to widening inequality.  Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Calavita illustrated how the transfer of income to the top 10% leads to less disposable income for the majority of people, making housing less affordable.  Next, a panel presented San Diego housing data that brought home a similar point; the most recent Regional Housing Needs Assessment shows that San Diego is well short of producing enough housing to keep up with population growth and demographic changes (smaller household size) in all income levels except for above-moderate.

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Subsequent speakers broadened the discussion beyond production to challenge the narrative that we can build our way out of the housing affordability crisis.  Through a series of maps illustrating the legacy of housing discrimination, Branden Butler of the Legal Aid Society of San Diego argued that there is a moral imperative for low-income tenant protections.  Keynote speaker and recently elected chair of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System Georgette Gomez called for a more systemic approach to addressing economic disparities that includes better transit and access to education and jobs.  Similarly, representatives of the San Diego Housing Commission made the case for a holistic approach to housing through preservation of affordable units, creation of supportive housing, and additional resources to provide stability to vulnerable individuals.

Perhaps saving the best for last, the most lively exchange pitted developers and community activists.  Seeing the developer as operating within a system that policy allows and the market provides, Andrew Malick drew attention to how protectionist zoning curbs the supply of land for housing and thereby raises the cost.  He concluded with an earnest plea for policy changes to allow for higher density land uses. Yet, housing activist Tony Roshan Samara of Urban Habitat Oakland challenged the view that a market-rate system can deliver safe, affordable housing for low-income people.  He pointed to a shortfall in our policy that does not allow us to see beyond the market, thereby ignoring community-based alternatives to the production and preservation of housing.

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While the research and policy outcomes of the Forum will be a few years in the making, the conference provided multiple narratives on housing affordability and social inequality for planners to grapple with in their daily practice.  The data show a clear need for more housing, but the questions of what types of units and how to avoid displacement remain largely unanswered. We know planning is about tradeoffs and that any solution to the housing crisis will need to balance accommodating growth and maintaining quality of life  As the Voices of Our City Choir reminded attendees, we need to rethink our assumptions about housing in San Diego and envision a more equitable future for all individuals.