San Diego's Failure To Get Up To Speed On Housing Policy Is Literally Killing San Diegans

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A shelter for homeless is set up on a downtown baseball field on July 23, 2016, in San Diego, California.
A shelter for homeless is set up on a downtown baseball field on July 23, 2016, in San Diego, California.
George Rose via Getty Images

One has to look no further than the recent hepatitis A outbreak to see that elected officials’ failure to get up to speed on housing policy is literally killing San Diegans.

Rather than identify and rectify the local policies that are contributing to the housing affordability and homelessness crisis, our elected officials point their fingers at external factors in an effort to shirk the duties they owe vulnerable San Diegans. The mayor and the City Council members have no one but themselves to blame for not taking the time and energy to understand housing policy. It is their job to avoid passing housing policies that adversely impact vulnerable populations, and to identify and implement effective housing policies to help San Diegans.

Council members are not required to be housing experts, but at the very least, they must consult with or hire housing policy experts to join their staff. Instead, they draft and champion hollow plans and solutions that are, at best, repetitive of laws already on the books and, at worst, ineffective or legally inaccurate.

The longer the mayor and council members wait on educating themselves about effective housing policy, the more they jeopardize the health and safety of low-income San Diegans. In response to the hepatitis A outbreak, the City Council should adopt an Urgency Ordinance to prioritize the development and implementation of evidence-based housing policies to address the housing affordability and homelessness crisis: fix San Diego’s just cause eviction ordinance, implement rent control, tighter oversight of San Diego Housing Commission’s use of federal housing dollars, an income-discrimination ban to help families who qualify for subsidized Section 8 support find housing, a prohibition on landlords refusing to rent to formerly incarcerated people, and an increase in relocation assistance to help displaced single-room occupancy tenants avoid homelessness.

Instead of proposing these housing policies that have effectively addressed homelessness in similarly situated cities across California, the housing plans and solutions the mayor and various City Council members proposed in June, July, September and again in October are based on false premises. Using false premises as the backdrop for addressing the housing crisis has led a majority-Democrat City Council to propose ineffective plans and solutions.

The first false premise that elected officials rely on is that wages are not keeping pace with the rising costs of housing. But the reason wages are not keeping pace with the rising costs of housing is because San Diego does not have rent control. Rent control is a very simple solution to the housing affordability problem, and one that expensive cities across the state of California have implemented. San Diego City Council members have failed miserably to take this basic step. Instead of seeing rent control as the obvious solution, our elected leaders blame employers for not paying higher wages. Employers and wages are not the primary causes of San Diego’s housing crisis, the City Council’s failure to enact progressive housing policy is.

The second false premise that the elected officials rely on is that federal resources for programs like subsidized Section 8 housing do not match the continually growing demand. The problem is not that the funds do not match the demand (funds are actually based on each jurisdiction’s rates of poverty), the problem is that the City Council has shirked its responsibility to oversee the San Diego Housing Commission, the agency tasked with distribution of federal housing funds. Other cities use their federal housing funding effectively to address housing affordability by ensuring that subsidies keep up with market rents, and tenants’ portion of the rent remains low. Not so in San Diego: Here, the City Council gives the San Diego Housing Commission free reign to implement policies that have yet to make a notable dent in San Diego’s affordable housing supply. As a result, low-income families are forced to use housing subsidies that are based on 2015 market rents instead of current market rents, which makes it impossible to make use of the housing subsidy. City Council allows San Diego Housing Commission to encourage low-income families to spend 50 percent of their income on rent, which other cities prohibit because it leads to housing instability.

The third false premise that the elected officials rely on in the various plans they’ve proposed is that building affordable housing is hard because of development barriers like outdated community plans. The City Council is the entity legally responsible for updating community plans and removing development barriers, pursuant to state law. If community plans are indeed outdated, making it hard for developers to build in those neighborhoods, City Council should immediately take steps to update them, instead of simply listing it as a barrier. Identifying this as a barrier to increasing housing affordability is the City Council pointing the finger at themselves.

Some of the proposed solutions included in the City Council’s various housing plans are just as concerning as the false assumptions the plans are based on.

One of the proposed solutions is that the city should preserve existing affordable housing. This cannot be a solution, however, because this is already required by a state law. The City Council already has a legal responsibility to take steps to preserve affordable housing, so it should stop propping this up as if it’s a radical new idea, and simply do a better job actually preserving affordable housing.

Another proposed solution is to implement 10 percent inclusionary housing and adjust the in-lieu fee payment that requires residential developments to either include some affordable housing units in their projects or pay a fee that the city will put towards affordable housing. This solution fails to include sufficient inclusionary housing percentages to help address the housing crisis – 10 percent is far too low. Moreover, it is vague on the in-lieu fee adjustment. It could have exponentially increased the in-lieu fee amount because the city needs affordable housing funding. Instead, it is kept vague, which indicates favoring luxury condo developers’ interests over affordable housing. Moreover, the tepid recommendations are based on a legally inaccurate description of the intersection between state legislative changes and case law, which will delay the adoption of an effective zoning ordinance.

Another proposed solution is for the city to seek grant opportunities for new housing development. But the City Council is not running a small local nonprofit organization reliant on grant funding. The City Council is responsible for the sixth largest city in the U.S., with the fourth largest homeless population. The fact that the City Council proposes grants as a solution to the affordable housing crisis is concerning, given the severity of our housing and homelessness crisis. While grants may supplement the city’s attempt to address the housing crisis, the discussion should focus on identifying permanent funding sources to replace redevelopment funds, accessing county reserves, and a bond measure.

The housing ideas proposed by San Diego’s mayor and City Council members as solutions to the affordable housing and homelessness crisis that caused the hepatitis A outbreak are indicative of a concerning level of housing policy incompetence. We should not applaud elected officials’ good intentions in proposing housing plans and solutions, because good intentions behind hollow housing plans won’t do anything to actually help San Diego’s affordable housing problem. The City Council must implement evidence-based housing policies now.