City Council President Tony Young is a pretty avid advocate for affordable housing. I’ve interviewed him numerous times for stories over the years and he’s always struck me as knowing a lot about the issue.

That’s why it came as a shock when Young told me this week that he had no idea how much the affordable housing projects he’s helped approve over the years have cost on a per-unit basis.

“People don’t even ask that question in San Diego,” he said.

Young echoed five former and current City Council people I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks, all of whom seemed to be completely in the dark about how much the projects they have approved will end up costing the taxpayer.

“I had no idea it was that much,” former Councilwoman Toni Atkins said on Tuesday when I informed her that an affordable apartment project in her former district had cost almost $500,000 per apartment. Atkins pushed hard for affordable housing when she represented District 3 between 2000 and 2008, and, as she told me, “I know quite a lot about this issue.”

As I point out in our investigation this week, the spiraling cost of building affordable housing has many industry players debating how to keep prices down. The California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, for example, which helps fund tens of millions of dollars’ worth of development all around the state, is holding a series of forums over the coming weeks to tackle that exact issue.

But the San Diego City Council, the final arbiter for choosing which affordable housing projects get funding in the city, hasn’t caught on yet.

When I suggested to Young yesterday that the final per-unit cost of building affordable apartments seems to have become something of an afterthought in San Diego, he interjected.

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“It’s not even an afterthought,” he told me. “The dynamic’s got to change.”

The City Council is not well-enough informed about the affordable housing development business, Young said. The council needs independent experts to advise it on the projects that come up for approval, he said.

While researching and writing the story, I’ve been asked a lot about possible solutions to help curb the growing cost of building affordable housing.

There’s already movement out there. I found out Thursday that, starting in 2012, the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee will only hand out tax credits to “cost-reasonable” projects. Looks like the committee’s getting serious about trying to tackle the issue.

One thing the City Council could do to address the problem is start asking what the total per-unit costs of a project is before approving spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money.

Please contact Will Carless directly at or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter:

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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