February 21, 2024

Policy Champion – Seth Litchney, Program Manager for Housing Policy, City of San Diego

Seth Litchney is the program manager for housing policy with the City of San Diego’s Planning Department. In this capacity, Seth develops policies for the city related to the Land Development Code, Coastal Commission, and housing. In 2023, Seth led the huge task of writing the city’s Housing Action Package 2.0 (HAP 2.0), which aims to implement state law to allow the construction of more new homes near transit, provide protections to existing residents, and increase the supply of land available for new home development. The initiative incentivizes new home opportunities in all communities for people of all backgrounds.

HAP 2.0 includes some controversial elements that draws the ire of San Diegans who do not wish to see additional housing units being built in their neighborhoods. Seth has consistently demonstrated professionalism and commitment to providing new housing opportunities in the face of what has sometimes been bitter vitriol.

Biocom California hears from our members that housing is the single most important issue in attracting and retaining life science talent. We specifically advocate for housing in the middle-income range, which are defined within the City of San Diego as affordable for a family of three making between $99,250 to $126,150 yearly. Our life science employees often fall in this range—they are making a good salary, but are still not able to afford a home at the median San Diego price of $1 million. The San Diego Union-Tribune recently reported that only 62 middle-income homes were permitted citywide in the past two years.

Biocom California is proud to support HAP 2.0, which is scheduled for final approval by San Diego City Council on December 12. We applaud Seth for his diligent and thoughtful work to create more housing opportunities for San Diegans.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I am the program manager for housing policy with the City of San Diego Planning Department, a position I have held since 2021. I previously worked on housing issues at the regional and state government levels. I have also participated in developing guidance for local governments to update their General Plans and address climate change in CEQA documents. Prior to working for the city, I oversaw the Regional Housing Needs Assessment process for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).

Our team is in charge of developing housing policies and programs for the city, implementing the city’s Housing Element, preparing annual updates to the Land Development Code, and overseeing the amendment process for the city’s Local Coastal Program. We coordinate with numerous stakeholders, city departments, the San Diego Housing Commission, the California Coastal Commission, and the California Department of Housing and Community Development on the creation and implementation of housing programs.

What led you to work on San Diego’s Housing Action Plan 2.0?

My team and I propose changes to the City of San Diego Municipal Code to increase home production, provide a variety of home types for all San Diegans, and streamline city processes to approve new homes. The second Housing Action Package (HAP 2.0) achieves these goals by introducing new programs, amending existing programs, and furthering fair housing by allowing for homes throughout the city.

We recognize that homes need to be a place for people to live, and we want to meet the needs of a variety of community members. HAP 2.0 helps meet the needs of more people by focusing on types of homes we do not typically see being built. For example, students at local colleges and universities may not have the opportunity to live on campus, so we proposed incentivizing privately constructed student housing off-campus. We also have an aging population and do not have enough homes with accessible features; therefore, we want to incentivize the development of accessible homes that can be used by older people, veterans, and people with disabilities. Our Complete Communities program is being expanded to incentivize the development of homes for families, too.

What roadblocks did you encounter working on HAP 2.0 and how could they be overcome in the future?

One of the challenges of developing policy is responding to feedback we receive on our proposals. We have numerous discussions with community members, organizations, and other city departments to ensure our proposals are reasonable, implementable, and achieve the intended goals.

Housing Action Package 2.0 is a well-known initiative and received thousands of comments through the outreach and public hearing process. Determining how to respond to that amount of feedback is a challenge, and where appropriate, we amended the HAP 2.0 proposals to address these concerns. I think clearly communicating our position and intent of each action can help explain the benefits of the proposal and address comments and questions that may arise.

How did the local life science industry factor into the development of this policy?

The life science industry is a growing sector and needs to attract and retain a skilled workforce at various stages in their lives. However, over the last few years, the development of homes in San Diego has been mostly smaller, single-bedroom homes. Smaller homes meet the needs of a portion of that workforce but may not be attractive to a potential employee with children or intergenerational family members. This Housing Action Package will include incentives to assist in providing homes with two and three bedrooms to meet this need.

We also acknowledge that the talented students in our local colleges and universities will ensure the city’s economic future continues to be vibrant. Providing affordable housing for students can help them complete their studies, as well as help them stay in San Diego as they begin their careers.

The Housing Action Package items incentivize homes in areas with access to transit, so current and future employees have opportunities to go to and from work without driving a car.

What is it about San Diego that makes it a good place for life science to grow and thrive?

San Diego is a great place to live. Our geographic location, ideal weather, and ample opportunities for outdoor activities attract people from around the world. The City Planning Department strives to ensure we have outstanding, thriving communities that can accommodate people from all walks of life. These types of communities will help businesses grow and prosper.

What other policy opportunities are there that the city could pursue to help life science?

We are always interested in new ideas and opportunities for meeting the housing needs of employees. If a certain program, type of home, or location of homes would help retain and attract employees, we can look into those opportunities in the future.

We also need to develop more homes near places where people work. Opportunities to walk, roll, bike, or take transit to work can be enhanced when people live closer to their work. This would help reduce vehicle miles traveled and meet the City’s greenhouse gas emission goals. Our work in updating the City’s General Plan and Community Plans assists in making this happen.

How can Biocom California and the life science industry help San Diego flourish?

The importance of new homes to the success of San Diego’s economy cannot be overstated. If development near jobs and transit, transportation improvements, or the preparation of a community plan would assist in helping the life sciences industry grow, that perspective should be shared with the public and decision-makers. Additionally, the city has an Employee Housing Incentive Program that can be used to assist in the development of affordable housing in San Diego when businesses are locating or expanding in San Diego.