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Thursday, February 16, 2006 | On Aug. 6, 2002, the San Diego City Council declared a “State of Emergency Due to Severe Shortage of Affordable Housing in the city of San Diego.”
With the city facing median home prices at the once-unheard-of level of $361,900, a panel of experts was convened to figure out where to house San Diego’s low-income families. For six months, the Affordable Housing Task Force thrashed out the debate, and eventually they came up with more than 60 recommendations.
It was a nice idea.
But as San Diego’s home prices have continued to spiral upwards, members who sat on the task force said their recommendations have been comprehensively rejected by the city council and by the city’s planning department. Now some of the ex-members of the task force say the exercise was largely a “waste of time,” as their recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
“To not be able to get the City Council to adopt one single piece of legislation that deals with the issue of affordable housing in any meaningful way is absolutely disgusting,” said Richard Lawrence, chairman of the Affordable Housing Coalition of San Diego County and a former member of the task force.
Council members Donna Frye and Toni Atkins, the two members of the council available for comment this week, said they sympathized with the concerns of affordable housing advocates. However, they said the issues raised by the task force had been given adequate consideration by the council, and expressed hope that the city’s new mayor will revisit the issue as he settles into office.
Houses cost a lot more than $361,900 in San Diego today.
Indeed, a December 2005 report by Moody’s Economy.com named the San Diego/Carlsbad/San Marcos area as the sixth least-affordable housing market in the nation. The California Association of Realtors’ most recent Affordability Index Rating concluded that only the wealthiest 8 percent of San Diegans can afford to buy a median-priced home in the county using traditional financing.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the task force’s recommendations are wide-ranging.
In summary, the group made projections for how many new affordable-housing units should be built in San Diego. It suggested a streamlining of the building process for the developers of affordable housing and proposed raising city taxes and issuing bonds to help subsidize the construction of affordable housing and to infrastructure improvement.
At the core of the recommendations are proposals to increase the city’s transient occupancy tax by 2 percent and to introduce a 5 percent tax on car rental in the city. The revenue these taxes would raise is crucial to pay for the implementation of many of the other recommendations, such as subsidizing the building of affordable housing units.
Of course, the rather grand plans of the task force were made before San Diego’s catastrophic political and pension crises. Everyone from affordable housing advocates, to politicians, to representatives of the city’s planning department agreed that those crises have pushed issues like affordable housing to the back of the political agenda.
In addition, because the task force floated the idea of raising taxes to pay for a number of its recommendations, some critics argued that those ideas were doomed from the start. Raising taxes is a political hot potato at any time, they said, and the city’s financial upsets have only made it more difficult to pass revenue raising measures.
But Nico Calavita, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University’s graduate program in city planning and an ex-member of the task force, said it’s unfair to simply blame the City Council for failing to approve so many of the recommendations. Calavita said part of the blame has to be placed at the feet of powerful interest groups in the city who stood in the way of the successful passing of affordable-housing policies.
“There’s an unwillingness by all the interest groups in the city to do anything to share the burden,” said Calavita.
Councilwoman Atkins said the task force’s recommendations were given a “full airing” in front of the City Council. However, she agreed that there were many interest groups competing for different outcomes, and that this clash of interests had the effect of killing many of the ideas put forward,
“There were so many interests at the trough and issues playing against each other, which is never good,” Atkins said.
However, Atkins stressed that the end result of the task force’s work can be seen today. For example, Atkins said the council’s work has forced the Center City Development Corp., which oversees development in downtown San Diego, and the San Diego Housing Commission, an organization that advocates for affordable housing, to work better together.
Nevertheless, Atkins admitted that there was little hope of implementing the task force’s recommendations to raise taxes to pay for affordable housing in the city. Though Atkins supported most of the tax increases, she said that too often in San Diego there are many competing issues, all clamoring for the same scant pools of funding. That’s especially true now, she said.
“I think there are too many competing issues on our plate that are going to divert the attention of councilmembers and the mayor,” Atkins said.
If the sticky issue of raising taxes was one blow that hobbled the implementation of the task force’s recommendations, another was the lack of strong stewardship of those ideas.
The task force seemed to know full-well that their ideas were unlikely to get very far without someone looking over them. The second recommendation in their final report is for the establishment of a full-time housing czar in the City Manager’s Office. That individual was to be tasked with “ensuring recommendations of the Task Force are implemented,” the report stated.
No housing czar was ever appointed.
Indeed, nobody really seems to know who was supposed to champion the recommendations of the task force after the group disbanded. Jack McGrory, the task force’s president, seems to think that person is Elizabeth Morris, president and CEO of the Housing Commission. Morris, however, is adamant that she plays no such role. This leadership vacuum has left ex-task force members frustrated.
“If this report isn’t just going to sit on the shelf and just dry up and blow away, there needs to be a person who’s charged with the responsibility of seeing to it that it is implemented,” said Reynolds.
Enter San Diego’s new mayor.
Fred Sainz, spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said the new leadership plans on bringing the issue of affordable housing back to the political arena in a big way. To this end, Sainz said, Sanders has appointed Jim Waring, a former real estate attorney as a sort of de-facto housing czar (his official title is deputy chief operating officer for land use and economic development for the city of San Diego).
Waring said he’s certainly interested in dusting off the task force’s reports and taking a look at them. He wasn’t aware they existed and said he’s glad he will have something to work from as he takes on his new role.
“It’s a good baseline to start from,” Waring said.
Sainz said that the four-year-old recommendations are only one source of information the new leadership will look at as they tackle the issue of affordable housing.
“Will it be part of our considerations? Absolutely. Will it be the only document that we look at? No,” Sainz said.
As far as advocates for affordable housing are concerned, Waring’s appointment is a big step forward.
Morris said she sees great potential in Waring’s appointment, but she said with so many issues competing for the City Council and the mayor’s attention, any movement forward on affordable housing is likely to be incremental rather than sweeping.
Morris stressed that it is unfair to say that the task force’s recommendations are simply idling away or gathering dust on a shelf. Though her organization is only overseeing some of the recommendations, she said that many of the ideas put forward by the group are still in the hopper, and are either still being worked on or have actually resulted in changes in policy.
“This is a very complex issue and there’s a lot of work energy and money devoted to it,” she said.
“Can there be more work, energy and money devoted to it? Yes, and we look forward to that,” she added.
Meanwhile, home prices are finally showing signs of softening in San Diego County. But real estate economists in San Diego say the housing affordability crisis is here to stay.
“The price of housing has just increased rapidly, so that it’s priced many people out of reach of home ownership in San Diego, not just poor people,” said Alan Gin, a professor of economics at the University of San Diego’s Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate.
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