Two weeks ago, environmental attorney Cory Briggs threatened to sue the city of San Diego for failing to assess whether the boom in condo conversions has resulted in negative environmental or socioeconomic impacts. On Friday, Briggs told CityBeat he'll go ahead with the lawsuit.
Over the past few months, Briggs has filed nearly 100 legal challenges to condo-conversion projects on behalf of the San Diego Affordable Housing Coalition and Citizens for Responsible Equitable Environmental Development. He said city planners have no idea what effect thousands of apartment units being converted into condos has had on low-income renters—the apartment vacancy rate in San Diego is between 3 and 4 percent and, three years ago, the City Council declared a housing state of emergency, citing the city's overall lack of affordable housing.
City Attorney Mike Aguirre has publicly sided with Briggs, pointing out that the California Environmental Quality Act—the law that governs environmental review of urban development—takes into account impacts on people displaced by those projects and states that “successive projects of the same type in the same place” demand scrutiny. San Diego, like every other city in California, exempts condo conversion from CEQA under a provision in the law that says it doesn't apply to the repair or alteration of an existing structure. Aguirre, meanwhile, has argued that the unusually large number of condo-conversion projects here—some 11,000 units in the pipeline and at least 4,000 completed units—makes for unusual circumstances.
“There's no other city that does what we do,” he told CityBeat. “There's nobody else that's allowing this massive amount of impact. We have more condo conversions than San Francisco, Alameda, Orange and Los Angeles [counties] combined. There's nobody else that has allowed this to get so far out of hand.”
San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley have, for a long time, closely regulated condo conversions-San Francisco allows only 400 units each year, for example. San Diego, meanwhile, has been called “ground zero” for condo conversions in California.
Last week, Gary Halbert, who heads the city's Development Services Department, the agency that oversees condo conversions, told the city's Planning Commission that Aguirre's opinion “is based on unsubstantiated opinion.” Halbert said the best way to address condo-conversion issues is through an ordinance that's expected to come before the City Council in February. Briggs, in response, said he doubts any impact study included in the ordinance will come close to what's mandated by CEQA.