Last Friday, a day after he spoke at a press conference during which City Attorney Mike Aguirre announced that condo conversion projects should be subject to environmental review, Cory Briggs' e-mail inbox was flooded.
“I've been responding to e-mail from people saying, ‘Briggs has got it all screwed up; he'll drive up the cost [of condos],'” Briggs told CityBeat. “Folks are misunderstanding what we're doing.”
San Diego has been called California's “ground zero” for condo conversions. Considered a prime source of affordable for-sale housing, converted condo units have jumped in price from roughly $280,000 in January 2004 to $335,229 now, according to MarketPointe Realty Advisors. Over the past six years, at least 15,000 rental units in San Diego have either been converted or are in the process of being converted (projects-in-process make up the bulk of the 15,000).
Briggs, an environmental attorney, has appealed nearly 100 decisions by the city's Planning Commission and Development Services Department to approve condo-conversion projects, most of them in Hillcrest, North Park and University Heights, without first conducting an environmental review. That's all he's asking for, Briggs said-not a halt to conversions but a look at whether the flip from apartments to condos has impacted traffic, infrastructure and, most importantly, people displaced in a rental market with a 3- to 4-percent vacancy rate.
“We just want the city to ask the question and give an answer,” Briggs said. “If they go out and do the study and if they get good information and it says no impact, we're going to live with that.”
But, he added, “we already know... there are going to be impacts” based on studies done in other cities.
CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, mandates that developers not only know whether their projects will effect the environment but also solve significant negative impacts. “Significant impacts,” according to CEQA, can include sociological impacts, such as whether a project will displace a large number of people or negatively affect an established community. CEQA is likewise concerned with “cumulative impacts”-the impact of “successive projects of the same type in the same place” and so-called “significant effect” stemming from what CEQA calls “unusual circumstances.” In a memo issued Thursday, Aguirre wrote that the “extraordinary number of condo conversions” happening in the city in a relatively short time constituted “unusual circumstances,” the effects of which warrant study.
Right now, the city's Development Services Department—the agency that processes condo-conversion applications—considers these conversions exempt from CEQA since the projects involve “negligible or no expansion of use.”
“The city's position has been that since there are no new units and the units are existing, that they qualify under CEQA for an exemption,” city Planning Commissioner Carolyn Chase explained.
Chase agrees with Aguirre's position. “The city attorney's memo points out, rightfully, that there are both cumulative and growth-inducing impacts that have never been analyzed under CEQA.” Lacking that analysis, the Planning Commission can't turn down projects based on unknown impacts, she said.
Assistant City Attorney Karen Huemann said she's advised Development Services “for months on this issue” that the sheer number of conversions could constitute a cumulative impact, thereby overriding the CEQA exemption the city's been applying to condo conversions. Development Services “has done no studies,” Huemann said. “One can say maybe there's not [an impact]; well, maybe there's not, but nobody's done any studies and it's really the obligation of the city to do the study, not a citizen.”
Development Services Director Gary Halbert, in an e-mailed statement, said he agrees that “the current wave of condo conversions does raise some socioeconomic issues,” but that those issues should be addressed in a condo-conversion ordinance that's expected to come before the City Council in February. Halbert said he does not agree with Aguirre's opinion that condo conversions be subject to environmental review.
If Development Services doesn't follow Aguirre's advice, Briggs says he'll go ahead with a lawsuit against the city. To bolster that lawsuit, Briggs' clients, the San Diego Affordable Housing Coalition and the group Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development, have been surveying residents of large apartment complexes slated for conversion to gather data on family size, income level, whether they'll buy a condo in the building and where they plan to move.
Grossmont College sociology professor Gregg Robinson is in the process of compiling the data. Last Sunday, he went to a privately owned Navy-housing complex slated for condo conversion. The current tenants would, of course, have to buy or leave. “What you're basically doing is trading working-class housing for middle-class housing,” he said. “There's an increase in the number of cars owned and car trips. Condo owners are also less likely to use public transportation.”
Robinson said one thing that's struck him is the impact conversions have on the elderly. At one apartment complex in Hillcrest, he met a disabled 80-year-old woman who'd already lived in two different buildings slated for conversion.
“In older units that get converted, someone may have come in 10 or 20 years ago,” Robinson said. “For the elderly, they're vulnerable emotionally. When you move them out, you're not just talking inconvenience; these are life events that effect longevity.”
Huemann noted that there are cities where elderly tenants are allowed to stay on as renters in buildings converted to condos. She said San Francisco limits condo conversions to 400 units each year, and neighboring Berkeley allows only 100. “We've had almost 12,000 in the last year and a half,” Huemann said. “Think about the difference—100 versus 12,000. And they're saying no impact? Why does Berkeley limit it to 100? Because they know there's an impact.”