By Brian Schrader
In the last two years, the Uptown region spanning from Banker’s Hill to South Park has seen a significant increase in large, several-story apartment complexes. Even more are currently under construction. Consequently, there has been a significant amount of local pushback to the increased density, including attack ads in local papers. Much of the ire seems to be aimed at especially large developments like the one currently under construction on Ohio Street. With so much happening and so much controversy, it’s time to discuss the purpose of these new units and why there are likely many more coming to Uptown in the coming years.
It is no secret that San Diego is in the midst of a housing shortage, but the severity is often understated or under-explored. According to the most recent state assessment, the city of San Diego alone will need to construct more than 108,000 housing units by 2030—more than enough for the entire population of El Cajon—to meet demand and stabilize our rising housing costs. It’s well known in housing policy circles that increasing density—building more and taller buildings—is the most efficient way to do this. More dense housing is also far more climate friendly than endless sprawl and new housing needs to be built in neighborhoods all over the city to improve social and racial equity.
In short, we need a lot more infill housing in existing neighborhoods; especially in wealthy neighborhoods like Hillcrest, North Park, University Heights and Normal Heights.
A lot of residents in these areas may see all these large complexes and fear the changes they could bring. This is only natural. After all, people choose to live in Uptown because they enjoy it the way it is, but it’s important to remember that the status quo is incredibly unfair and unequal. Thousands of San Diegans experience homelessness every year, and more than half of San Diego renters are rent burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on rent.
We aren’t going to solve the twin housing affordability and availability crises without changing the composition of our neighborhoods significantly. It’s also very important to remember that no one is proposing that Uptown becomes Downtown or even anything like it. A few multi-story complexes won’t drastically change anything about the character of Uptown’s neighborhoods. If anything, it will give local businesses more customers and increase the use of our new bike lanes.
According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 170 named urban communities in the city of San Diego. If around 640 new housing units were built in each one, we could solve our housing crisis. That’s about four of those Ohio Street complexes per community. Now that’s a lot of housing, but it’s not enough to drastically change the Uptown skyline.
In the past few years, San Diego has picked up the pace and allowed more housing to be built throughout the city. However, it still isn’t enough. At current levels, San Diego is not going to come anywhere close to solving its housing crisis before 2030. The simple fact is that San Diego doesn’t have enough housing and that the city needs to build a lot more, a lot faster. These new units need to be in existing neighborhoods and they need to be accessible by bike and by public transit. Then and only then can San Diego get in front of its housing crisis.
Housing policy is a powerful lever to reduce racial and social inequality. Building both market-rate and affordable housing units in wealthy neighborhoods allows less wealthy and more disadvantaged residents to move in. Access to good schools, safe neighborhoods, and good public transit is a boon to those trying to improve their lot in life. Right now Uptown is fairly exclusionary—as is much of San Diego—and more housing is the solution. It’s not enough to build housing “over there” in poorer neighborhoods. Such a strategy only increases racial and economic segregation because while families and individuals can afford to stay in their current poorer communities, they can’t afford to leave. Uptown is perhaps the wealthiest area south of the 8. It’s time we acted as a bridge and not a gate to social mobility.
More housing solves this problem.
A lot has changed in Uptown since 2019, but if we want things to get better, then we need to be willing to embrace a little more change.
— Brian Schrader is a local business owner, software developer, writer and San Diego resident living in Normal Heights.