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Thursday, May 24, 2007 | When San Diegans talk about how to make homes affordable enough for regular people to buy, they usually go one of two routes.
They advocate some kind of government intervention. They say the government should help families buy homes with low-interest loans or even handouts; or an agency should try to cap the price of certain homes.
Or they try to persuade the public to put the problem, and its solution, into the hands of the market. Build more houses, they say, and there will be a larger supply of them. The more homes there are available for purchase or rent, the cheaper the price a person will have to pay to live in one of them.
Count San Diego City Councilman Tony Young in with the latter group.
He shakes his head when he talks about affordable housing advocates and “so-called activists,” who don’t understand the neighborhood he represents and don’t necessarily even want to go there.
“They say they love us. They want to help. But it’s a condescending type of love: ‘We’ll help you create affordable housing, but you have to do what we say,’” he said.
There’s a better way to help his neighborhood, Young said. Build homes. And build a lot of them.
He said he’ll give any developer who wants one a tour of Southeast San Diego.
And he scoffs at anyone who might think that courting developers is a bad thing.
“If you want cheaper housing, you have to build homes. What I’m trying to do is build the appropriate amount of housing so that housing prices drop,” Young said.
When building industry boosters in town make this argument, they usually stop before they say that last part: “… so that housing prices drop.” They know that it’s a good argument for allowing them to build but they never really want to tell homeowners that their efforts might devalue their investments.
Young says he’s a market-oriented guy.
It’s yet another one of the intriguing stances Young has taken since the sudden death of his childhood friend and boss thrust him into the political spotlight and marked the unexpected beginning of his own career as an elected official. The late-Councilman Charles Lewis was barely beginning his career in elected office when he suddenly died in 2004. The death shocked the city and left Young memorably shaken. Soon after the death, Young seemed lost and unable to figure out what the change in circumstance meant for his own future.
He decided to run for Lewis’ seat. But so did the Rev. George Stevens.
Stevens was a fixture in the community, who himself had been a member of the City Council for 10 years. The refrain was heard: If George runs for the seat again, George wins.
But Tony Young won. And since then he’s been carving out a public identity of his own. He’s slowly gaining the courage to take uncomfortable stances on city issues. At the same time, he’s driving around his neighborhood as much as possible trying to imagine where more and more homes could go.
I went with him one day recently.
Young had surprised me not long before. The firefighters union and local labor leaders had demanded that the city’s firefighters get a small across-the-board salary increase. Young decided not to support them and instead endorsed the mayor’s stance that firefighters’ salaries should be frozen for at least one more year.
The firefighters union was furious when the City Council, with Young’s crucial vote, rejected the pay increase. Firefighters had come out strong in support of Young when he decided to run for his boss’s seat on the City Council. It’s hard to imagine that Young’s constituents in Southeast San Diego would have punished him for supporting the firefighters. And he’s not seen as an ally of the mayor.
“Somebody must have gotten to him,” said Frank DeClercq, the vice president of the firefighters union.
The vote seemed like it could only have negative consequences politically for Young.
Yet he made it and now says he didn’t even think twice.
Observers I talked to were confounded: Why did he do that? The implication was obvious. He couldn’t possibly have made the decision because he thought it was the right one.
Nobody does that, do they?
I asked him if it was a hard decision to make. Jerry Butkiewicz, the secretary of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Labor Council appeared in front of the City Council shortly after the issue was settled. Butkiewicz lambasted Young and his colleagues — singling them out by name.
“I wasn’t torn up about it,” Young said. “I don’t think they endorsed me to just sign off on higher salaries every time it comes up. I didn’t want to give a raise to them when I find what I perceived to be cuts in other parts of the budget like library services and environmental services.”
Young also recently called for a performance audit of the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., or SEDC. This was not an easy thing to do — the agency’s board and staff have strong political connections in the district.
But Young said it’s time.
“I think that there are good things that have happened with SEDC. And there have been things that have been happening that can we do better,” Young said. “I hope that SEDC comes out showing that they are effective in providing services because there have been questions about that from a lot of different sources.”
SEDC’s purpose is to spur development. But Young said it was ill-prepared to help with what he says was one of the best examples of his hopes for Southeast San Diego coming to fruition: a rising condominium complex at 62nd Street and Imperial Avenue.
The plot was once a junkyard. But now the project — dubbed “Esperanza” — is bringing 29 condos to the market. They’re located right next to the trolley station. They seem to fit perfectly with his vision of turning much of that stretch of Imperial Avenue into a denser, more vibrant community.
It’s a vision that Charles Lewis had when he was the city councilman as well, but it’s not one that’s universally praised.
Jewell Hooper, who at 92 is still an active member of the Encanto Community Planning Group, said she has heard about efforts to put that kind of housing on Imperial Avenue for three decades.
It’s nice that there’s a trolley stop right there — too bad that nobody uses it, Hooper said.
“You can put as much dense housing on Imperial Avenue as you want, but unless you give people more incentive to ride the trolley, all you’re going to do is put more traffic on that street.”
Hooper’s not too impressed with Young anyway.
“I consider him and his staff unresponsive,” said Hooper, the chairwoman of the Martin Luther King Recreation Center. “Maybe he’s listening to other people, but I’m certainly not one of them.”
Rosemary Pope remembers Young from when he was a child. Pope is Charles Lewis’ mother. She said she remembers pushing Young to run for her son’s seat after the tragedy. But she wonders now if he’s filling the shoes.
“I really feel his office could be more proactive rather than reactive,” Pope said. A mother tends to see her son in a different light than others, but she said there’s a qualitative difference between how well Charles Lewis — whom she calls “Chuck” — communicated with the district and how well Tony Young has.
“Chuck was just as comfortable at downtown banquets as he was hanging out at Joe Blow’s pool house talking with the people. Tony can’t forget his base,” Pope said.
Young’s staff refers to him not as a member of the City Council, however, but as the council president pro tem.
I asked if he would try to make a run to get rid of the “pro tem” after his title.
Council President Scott Peters, after all, will relinquish the title several months from now. The position of council president quickly became one of the most powerful in the city after a major reformation of city government went into effect in January 2006.
“Leadership sometimes comes from a position you take. Other times it comes from a quality that you have. I think I have that quality, but we’ll see,” Young said.
Young has danced with the kind of confrontation and public performance that leading the City Council would require, but he also shows a hesitation. Like Pope said, he seems more comfortable reacting than he does taking the lead on a controversy.
It’s one thing to have confidence in your decision — to not be “torn up” when you face criticism about a tough call. It’s a whole different matter, however, to grab a hold of an issue long before it comes to a vote. That means you invite criticism.
Unfortunately, if you don’t control at least part of the conversation, it will control you.
Young may be unsure if he wants to stand out, but that doesn’t mean he’ll always be. After all, Young has been changing and adapting ever since that Sunday almost three years ago when his friend died and his life changed course forever.