The Housing Crisis in San Diego

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Analysis by Reporting San Diego

March 29, 2017 (San Diego) There is a crisis in San Diego. One that is getting deeper. Homelessness is at a crisis point, and it continues to increase. This is not a minor issue. At this point, it is the fourth largest homeless population in the United States. You can see it on bridges, under freeway underpasses, and downtown. There seems to be no solution in sight. We must ask, what is going on?

There are several reasons, and they are related.

The first is that single occupancy hotels, used for many years to house low income at risk people, who were single, are on the wane. These units, known as SRO’s, have been a staple of services for decades, but the property where these hotels are located is valuable and redevelopment is leading to the rise of expensive condos and apartments, that in effect are displacing people, many of them seniors, to the streets.

San Diego used to have over 14, 000 SRO units in the 1980s, it is now down to 3,900 rooms. These spartan units have a bed, a dresser, at times a small fridge and a microwave. Things like bathrooms and in some cases, a kitchen are shared. Most of the tenants are older, and if the SRO unit is gone, they cannot afford anything less spartan.

This is why developments downtown can be a problem. They have displaced many of these hotels and replaced them with high-end housing options, that are also beyond the capacity of middle-income San Diegans.

Gentrification is also making rents expensive in areas that used to be affordable, such as City Heights and North Park. This has led to housing that is beyond the reach of many low-income residents. In some cases, it is also unaffordable for middle-income residents.

Then there is Proposition 47 that has freed low-risk offenders from state prison. One of the things that are not well known is that these people cannot qualify for government programs like Section 8 housing. Of course, that is an excuse from those who opposed Prop 47. The number of units who are eligible for Section 8 are tiny, and the waiting list is long. According to the San Diego Housing Commission:

“The San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) is in the process of upgrading the online waiting list portal for existing applicants. Approximately 46,000 households in San Diego are on a waiting list to obtain a federal Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8). The average wait to obtain a housing voucher is 8 to 10 years.”

Therefore,  blaming newly released felons is hardly the reason for this explosion in homelessness. However, we expect to see more cuts in these funds from Housing and Urban Development, according to the budget released by the White House. These cuts will exacerbate the problem we see, and likely lengthen the waiting lists. When you have to wait 8 to 10 years to get section 8 housing, chances are higher that you will not be able to afford rent.

Rents in San Diego are very high, with growths that make no sense. The average rent is $1748 a month. However,  growth has finally slowed down, according to a report from the Union-Tribune. Rents have increased an average of 2 percent every six months since 2000, including the Great Recession of 2008.

“The weighted average rent for a studio in March was $1,372 a month; a one-bedroom, $1,549; two-bedroom, $1,823 a month; three-bedroom, $2,255 a month; and $3,033 a month for a four-bedroom.”

This is a problem. For many families, a roof over their head means more than 30 percent of their monthly income, which means that home is not affordable. So many low-income families, in particular, are pushed to the streets. Or you have multiple bread earners living in confined quarters, to be able to afford something. Some of these housing units are run by slum lords that keep living conditions very low, with failing refrigerators and failing electrical outlets. The rent is cheap, but the tenants cannot afford anything else. We pay as a society in other ways, including high rates of asthma 

The city of San Diego has created a task force on affordable housing. This is the latest effort to deal with the crisis. The San Diego Housing Commission has worked for years with those in the private sector to reduce homelessness, but the efforts have not worked well. While the St Vincent de Paul mission serves people with emergency shelter, we have yet to see more than just lip service to permanent housing.

The city needs to face reality. The high-end expensive developments are displacing people. They are also unaffordable for most of San Diegans. We have a real crisis. In this, we need to face reality. The city will have to pass rent control legislation, but it will also have to stop the development of high-end housing and start favoring middle and low income. This is starting to dawn on officials

Affordable housing and state-run housing conjure up unfair stigmas of failing, dangerous housing projects, or welfare for the poorest of the poor, when in fact, voucher programs are prevalent, and the affordability crisis affects a wide swath of the population, from those in poverty to many with professional degrees, including social workers, chefs, and educators. At a recent hearing of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance, Richard C. Gentry, President and Chief Executive Officer of the San Diego Housing Commission, was blunt in his assessment.

“I believe that the United States’ traditional public housing program is no longer viable in its current form to continue serving the needs of low-income Americans,” he said

The Federal role in affordable housing also peaked at the time of home ownership peak, that is in the 1960s and 70s. So we have less money, but a crisis.

How the city of San Diego responds, as well as the county, will be a good question. What is true is that part of the solution to homelessness is facing this affordability crisis. Homes are well beyond the reach of many citizens. These are people who are working one and two jobs and are not limited to food service workers.

Short term we need to face a reality. This reality is that people in the streets are not there because they are lazy. They are there because in many cases they cannot afford the rent. These people are not just the poor. In some cases, it is middle-class professionals who cannot afford rent in San Diego.

This is partly why:

The SANDAG Regional Growth Assessment estimates that San Diego will need to produce 161,980 more units of housing from 2010 through 2020. This includes 67,220 high-income units, 30,610 moderate-income units and 64,150 low-income units. In the first four years of the projection period (about 36% of the time period), San Diego has produced 31% of the high-income units needed, 4% of the moderate-income units needed and 6% of the low-income units needed. Building permit numbers show that the pipeline of new development significantly lags demand for housing in the moderate-income and low-income segments. At the current pace, San Diego will produce only 10% of needed moderate-income housing and 18% of needed low-income housing by the end of 2020.

Given this, especially young workers just starting families, are leaving not just San Diego, but the state.

Fining people for being in the street, or worst taking away their property, will not solve the problem. What will are programs that include housing first and very short term, the use of single occupancy shacks; these lockable units can be placed in places like city-owned, open ground. However, these are very short-term solutions and if care is not taken, could lead to shanty town conditions.

The last thing the city needs is more million dollar units downtown.

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