San Diego County Tackles Affordable Housing and Climate Change
Dahvia Lynch, AICP, the director of Planning & Development Services for San Diego County, talks about her agency’s bold plans for housing and climate change, an accessory development unit program that helped drive a 70 percent uptick in ADUs, and an agricultural conservation program that has permanently set aside nearly 80,000 acres. The agency is also taking a connected approach to housing and vehicle miles traveled, while supporting electric vehicle adoption.
Meghan Stromberg: San Diego County is a pretty unique place. Its expansive geography includes urban areas like the city of San Diego, as well as more than 70 miles of Southern California coast. It has mountains and deserts and rural inland areas that produce $1.8 billion in agricultural output annually. It also shares a 60-mile border with its neighbor to the south—Mexico. It's home to more than 3 million people, making it the fifth most populous county in the US. Non-human residents are also abundant, and San Diego County is widely regarded as the most biodiverse in the nation. Like any place, San Diego County has its challenges and opportunities. Two ongoing crises top that list: a housing shortage and the need to adapt to and mitigate climate change. The county also plans for efficient and equitable transportation—no small feat in such a big diverse place. Welcome to another episode of the APA Podcast. I'm Meghan Stromberg, Editor in Chief of the American Planning Association. Joining us today is Dahvia Lynch. She's the Director of Planning and Development Services for San Diego County. And she's about to take us on an audio tour of one of the biggest and most diverse counties in America. And she'll also introduce us to some of the innovative planning happening there. Hi, Dahvia. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Dahvia Lynch: Thank you so much for having me, Meghan.
MS: San Diego County is hardly homogenous. Tell me more about what it's like. What do you love about it?
DL: Absolutely. It really is such a diverse place in terms of people and climate and ecosystems. Really, I mean, we span the spectrum. We have small towns, we have urban areas—some that have transit available to them. And we have vast areas of incredibly rich, natural land preserves, and just wide-open spaces and an incredibly robust agricultural community. Really just very, very diverse. And it's so exciting because you could spend years exploring the county and never see it all and never really get that full flavor because there's so much to offer.
MS: It's absolutely enormous, isn't it?
DL: It is. We're in the unincorporated area, which is you know, the more eastern-most portions of the county, which are not, you know, the city of San Diego, the coast, the beach, the things you think of in San Diego. It's about 80% of the size of Connecticut. And that's, I think, why we have so much to offer—tremendous amount of variation in terms of typography and things like that as well. So a lot of microclimates, a lot of a lot of new places to visit.
MS: Before we get started talking about some of the particular challenges and opportunities, I wanted to set the scene a little bit. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how San Diego County approaches its community needs assessments.
DL: Well, thank you for that question, Meghan. It is one of the things that we're working on, on the planning front that is most exciting to me. We're fortunate to have incredible policy direction, and a tremendous amount of stakeholder engagement in our policy direction comes from our Board of Supervisors. And it's very clear that we are to be taking a data-driven approach, stakeholder-driven approach, which really puts us in a position to optimize and use best practices. We're also very focused on equity, sustainability, and I think the piece that I've seen historically has been missing in the field. And in some cases, you know, we're going from planning to implementation. And we're not focused on just planning within our jurisdiction in a sort of myopic or siloed way. We are really expanding to work as leaders throughout the region. We're working with various partners in our agency that aren't just planners, they're implementers, folks on the housing construction side, in all sorts of other public health, all sorts of other functionalities that we offer here at the county. So that's what's unique. And I think, tying that back to the community needs assessment, it really starts with our communities. What we're doing currently for that effort is we're not coming to the communities with projects or programs and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ We're starting from basics. We are starting with a true collaborative and empowerment-oriented model. You think of the IAP 2 Spectrum. We are going to the communities and saying, ‘What are your needs?’ And looking very holistically, pulling all of the data that is available to us through regional metrics, census data, looking at that information, but starting with the community: ‘What are your needs? Whether the county addresses those or is empowered to do so or not, what do you need?’ How can we begin to solve those challenges? And then really going back and checking that with data sources, making sure that, again, the process is data-driven, and also coming back to the community and saying, ‘This is what we heard. This is we what we thought you said. Did we get it right?’ And if we didn't, going back to the drawing board again. So we're really identifying and have identified some very unique projects and efforts that I think surprised us in some cases, because they were so informed by the community and helped to educate us in a way that I think all planners can learn from.
MS: It really sounds like it's sort of a conversational and circular approach, where you're finding out what people need by listening, confirming that you've heard it right, proceeding with plans and adjusting them as you go to make sure that you're doing the right thing for your community.
DL: Well, you know, I think, just as an example, you know, this is very active project now. So we're still working on it in the early stages. But, for example, one of our communities, which is fairly rural in nature—a lot of large lots. And, you know, we were surprised to learn, as we went through that process, that there actually was limited access or proximity to parks, which again, were kind of assessed or thought of as a little bit less of a need, perhaps in that community than in some more dense locations. But as we started to unpack that, and we continue to work with the community on that, we've begun to realize that, in fact, it is a greater need, and that the specifics of what that recreational space looks like is where the variety might be. And so through that process, we can begin to understand those needs, confirm that there's a data-oriented basis for that, as well as the stakeholder piece. And then we can look at, you know, our capital improvement programs—did we plan any of these facilities? Should we change some of the facilities we had planned? And how do we prioritize those and fund those in a way that makes sense for the community. So again, we're really in the midst of this, but that's kind of an early process and early learning that we're involved in right now.
MS: Probably some of the needs that come up revolve around housing. It's a really important issue everywhere. And I know that San Diego County has recently adopted a revised housing element for its general plan. And I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about the goals of that housing element and, you know, what you hope to achieve.
DL: We're absolutely doing that during the planning component. But our board is so focused—and I'm so grateful for this—so focused on material outcomes and impacts. So we're taking that to the point of making sure we have an implementation program once those needs and solutions are identified. The housing element was adopted last year; it's a state requirement. And the purpose of that housing element is to ensure that we are planning for making sure that we are not maintaining that we're removing any barriers to the development of up to about 6,700 units. And those have variation in terms of the affordability level that the state would like to see us achieve, and certainly that we would like to achieve. And within that housing element, our goals have really been to streamline housing opportunities. How can we make the right kind of housing in the right place possible? Because, as you and I know, Meghan, you know, planning is one piece of it. But for many years—and I saw this in my younger years as a planner—we think if you plan it, they will come. And sometimes that's true. But I think there's an economic development component, there are market forces. And in our community, there are a lot of constraints to development. I talked about the slope factors, and we've got floodplains and environmental constraints. So we've really looked at streamlining housing to the point that, in some cases, and most recently, we've been directed by our board to look at doing a parcel-by-parcel analysis of certain areas to say, ‘What are the barriers to implementing higher-density potentially affordable housing in these areas? Is it infrastructure? Is it, you know, I need to consolidate parcels?’ So we're really going from visioning to planning to looking at implementation tools. And in fact, I'll share with you, outside of the planning arena, the county's committed over $50 million to what we've called an Innovative Housing Trust Fund, where we are leveraging over a half a million dollars of monies to actually construct housing, not only in the unincorporated area, but in the cities. So again, you see that partnership approach with other cities with even the private sectors. So we've done a lot of things in that vein, and of course, back to planning. We are streamlining creating buy right programs, fantastic ADU programs I'm really excited about. So a lot of different opportunities. We have over 60 programs in that vein.
MS: Wow, what a comprehensive program, and I love that you're working across the county with different stakeholders to make it all happen. You mentioned the ADU program, of course, accessory dwelling units. What can you tell us about that program and some of the successes that you've seen?
DL: I would love to tell you about our ADU program. It is something I'm really, really excited about. We've seen a huge uptick in ADUs, and that is due in part to state regulations. I have to say, a lot of the regulatory framework has streamlined those, but I'm really proud of what the county has done to help facilitate that. We've committed over $10 million to waive fees for ADUs. And boy, have we seen the impact of that. We've seen over a 70% increase in ADUs in the past year. And we have also created fully approved predesigned plans. And these actually went viral on TikTok. So that's not something, you know, a county gets to say a lot that those have become really popular in the social media space, because it saves folks up to $30,000 in design fees. I mean, it's really an expensive aspect of the construction process. So we've been able to provide that tool. We have, again, streamlined and waived fees for ADUs and we've really seen it pan out.
MS: How do ADUs fit into an affordable housing strategy? Why are we hearing so much about them?
DL: It's a great question. And I think we've seen some success in Northern California and a variety of communities there that adopted this early on. And we're starting to see it because it starts to address components of the market—of the demographic spectrum—that are really underserved, right? I mean, I personally am thinking about it for my senior parents. It's sort of seniors, I think, young adults, it's this sort of natural, affordable housing. And it's really an important aspect of that. That spectrum of housing that is not always met and is really not something that just born out of the market typically.
MS: I want to switch over to talk a little bit about your climate action plan. It's a plan aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years. And it's pretty ambitious. What are some of the climate action plan’s top priorities?
DL: So our climate action plan is not aimed to just meet our state targets. And again, I know this is this is a national audience, and a lot of your listeners will probably know that our state of California has been really focused on climate action, housing, as I mentioned a moment ago, and they do have some clear targets that we need to achieve. But we're going further. We're going much further. Our board's goal is to go carbon neutral. And we know that some of that's within our authority, and some of it is far outside of it and again requires that partnership with various other agencies and entities and academia, as well. We are taking a lot of different steps and have many different programs identified to tackle that issue. One of them that I think serves a lot of purposes and really has some co-benefits is our purchase of agricultural conservation easements. As you mentioned, we have a really extensive agricultural industry here in the county. And we're working with willing property owners to purchase agricultural conservation easements, where it benefits them in terms of reducing tax burden. It permanently conserves the land for agricultural purposes. And there are a lot of conservation benefits to these corridors for wildlife that helps to serve that purpose. And at the end of the day, it's a carbon sequestration tool. So that's one of wins all around. And again, it's a voluntary program. And we've been able to conserve thousands of acres—continue with a 4,000-acre-a-year goal. So we're really focused on that program.
MS: What a tremendous program. You also have a pretty significant solar program. What can you tell us about what you're achieving there?
DL: We do. Well, we've used incentives, again, as I mentioned with the ADUs. And that's county funding that we're putting towards this effort to incentivize the installation of solar PBs on residences, and it's really been successful. We process a huge volume of solar permits on an annual basis. And we're also working on reducing emissions in our own county facilities. We're working on transitioning to a zero-emission fleet. And we've made a lot of progress on that. And in the past year or so, taking that a step further, building zero-net energy facilities. And we're currently costing that out. It's not a small feat, but our board is taking steps in that direction. And we're really excited to be part of that. One of the things I'd love to share with you, Meghan, in that same vein is we have created an EV roadmap. So this is one of those things where we said, hey, as planners, let's identify what the need is. How do we get electric vehicles in people's hands? And I talked about equity earlier: How do we get electric vehicles in everyone's hands? Who wants to have a vehicle? Who could have access to a vehicle who could benefit from a vehicle? And there's so many barriers there, right, and so many different limitations. So we have gone out to the private sector, out to communities, especially communities that have been historically underserved, and put together a comprehensive website that identifies how do I figure out what type of vehicle I'd like for my particular uses? Where do I find a, you know, free driving event? How do I contact a dealership? What kind of programs are out there for me to get reimbursement or other grant funding for electric vehicles? We've really created this comprehensive website. We've had over 7,000 hits on that in the first six months, where we are reaching out to members of all elements of our community to say, ‘Let us help you get there.’ And we're also mapping out where infrastructure would be needed to be able to support electric vehicles throughout the county based on gaps in service. So, again, we've worked with the academic sector on this, as well. And we are really, really looking forward to where this unfolds and where we're able to take this piece of our plan.
MS: Talking about your electric vehicle program reminds me of another significant effort, which is reducing VMT, or vehicle miles traveled. Of course, that has an emissions impact. But in a county of your size—and with such diversity, then with topographical diversity and population diversity—it must be a big challenge.
DL: It really is. And I think there are a lot of different directives that we are seeing from the state, policy directives from a variety of different places and origins that are talking about climate change, and yet, and VMT reduction, and also build housing, housing, housing, right? And conservation and agriculture. So without a really intentional thought process, these issues could conflict very readily. So what we're doing from the county perspective is trying to align these things. And fundamentally, we've been talking about smart growth and now sustainability for a very long time. And we know these things can be in alignment, it just has to be thoughtful. So we have we have been working on an approach to VMT because, you're right, if vehicle miles traveled is the driver, so to speak, of land use, the county is just not it's not going to be particularly viable to do a whole lot of development in these really distant remote areas. We need to be focused in our approach. And our board has recently taken some action to do that, to focus a lot of our future growth: We're expecting up to about 5,000 units from a planning standpoint over this next housing cycle will occur within the more urban areas, those closer to the west of the San Diego region that are close to transit. And we're even looking at transit opportunity areas. We're looking forward another 10-20 years saying, ‘What areas are proximate to transit that we can work with local and regional transit agencies to hopefully create more transit investment to jointly build the units that will support the transit and concurrently plan the future transit that we need to see there. And this is where I mentioned that we've been looking at a parcel-by-parcel analysis in these locations, sitting at the table with the building industry, sitting at the table with market researchers who can say what needs to happen here, put a dollar amount on that and help us map out how to go from the plan, the vision, to seeing housing, and particularly affordable housing, senior housing, show up in these areas and be an important part of that.
MS: So in San Diego County, though, it's not just making space for people, in terms of building housing, and making sure that they can get where they need to go. You have a wide array of animals and plant species, and have made great strides in making sure that those species are protected. I'd love to hear a little bit more about what the county is doing in terms of preserving and protecting its biodiversity.
DL: Well, Meghan, you just opened the door on one of my favorite programs. And I'll let you in on a little secret that our multiple species conservation program is actually what attracted me to the county over 20 years ago, in my very early career days, because it was such an innovative program. And it really was oriented to protect species through large blocks of habitat preservation approach, and also to streamline development where it belongs in areas that are served by infrastructure and that don't have that kind of biodiversity. And it was driven at that time by some of the endangered species issues that we were encountering the community. And it really kind of created that platform and that opportunity to start to focus more on the conservation piece that had not been as much of a focus while also streamlining development. And basically the way this program works through, again, data-driven processes, analyzing the most biodiverse areas with the largest blocks of habitat and critical corridors for a species movement, a preserve is identified. That's often quite a bit of private land. And really, this is based on incentives. We’ll incentivize conservation in those areas mitigation for development in areas where it is otherwise incentivized. And in those areas where it's incentivized outside of the preserve, we're able to work with our local California and federal wildlife agencies to streamline permits, where species can be impacted in those areas because they're being offset mitigated in those large swaths of habitat—which from a long-range perspective, in terms of the viability of the species is really the most critical tactic that we can take. So the project or the program has been really successful, and it only covers a portion of our county. We have preserved almost 80,000 acres of a really vast array of habitat types, many, many, many species—far beyond the number of species that we have covered in terms of listed species. And that's been running, like I said, for over 20 years. And we are now looking at two more similar multiple species programs to implement here in the county.
MS: Any favorite species?
DL: We have this adorable creature—it's always the charismatic, cute ones, right—called a burrowing owl. I would encourage any of your future conference attendees to come out and learn more about the tiny head-spinning burrowing owl. They're just the cutest creatures. And they've really been a big focus of a lot of our conservation efforts and have also been a barrier that I think we've worked through for development. So we've been able to kind of find the right place for the animals and allow their populations to grow over time and then also streamline development in some of those areas where that conflict existed.
MS: Well, it sounds like the burrowing owl has a special place in your heart. But listening to you talk about San Diego County, I can tell that the county itself and the planning efforts and the people there are all very special to you. So thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about what's going on and the successes that you've had. It's been a real pleasure talking to you.
DL: Thank you so much, Meghan. It's been a wonderful opportunity and a pleasure, as well. Thank you.
MS: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the APA Podcast. To hear past episodes of the APA Podcast, visit Planning.org/Podcast. And make sure to subscribe to the show on Spotify, Apple, SoundCloud, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.