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We’ve received a lot of response to the recent articles by Will Carless about the high cost of affordable housing. His story explained that since 2007, almost $600 million in public funding has only built 24 housing projects with about 2,000 apartments. Some of them cost more than $500,000 to build each.

Perhaps the most striking response came from City Council members. For a follow-up story to his three-month investigation, Carless asked former Councilwoman Toni Atkins about the costs.”I had no idea it was that much,” Atkins told Carless. And, she told him, “I know quite a lot about this issue.”

City Council President Tony Young told Carless that when considering approval of affordable housing projects, cost per unit is “not even an afterthought.”

Others have had their say. Jeff Graham, vice president of redevelopment for the Centre City Development Corporation, says cost-per-unit is only be one of the factors that come into play: federal, state and local rules for wages, location and environmental issues must also be taken into account when building affordable housing. They drive up the cost, item by item.

Susan Tinsky of the San Diego Housing Federation had a similar perspective. She explained in an op-ed that using the construction of affordable housing as a way to achieve other public policy goals may drive up prices but it also makes affordable housing a multi-part winning situation.

The entire community wins when these efforts are undertaken. The construction or rehabilitation of affordable housing often achieves long-term benefits for communities by removing blight and catalyzing the market. The result of this investment is lower crime and a higher property tax base. … Attractive new affordable housing catalyzed the market and minimized risk, leading to self-supported development that has transformed the neighborhood in a short period of time. These benefits come with a high price tag, however.


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But ultimately, writes Lucas O’Connor, a political consultant and one of the people behind the progressive blog Two Cathedrals, the main problem is that we don’t know how to determine the success of all of this money spent on so many goals.

Measuring the impact — and thus return on investment — of any redevelopment project is incredibly complex and far from an exact science. That Carless chose to give this only the barest acknowledgement belies the root problem that San Diego has with all development: No established standard for success. Whether we’re discussing affordable housing, a Convention Center expansion, or renovations to Balboa Park, not only is there no definable project “success,” but there’s no good mechanism for comparing various options against each other.

Below I’ve included other responses from comments on the stories which struck me as most interesting, but there are many, many more at the articles linked above.

Trying to Grasp It

Bill Bradshaw:

This exposé makes the eternal point that, when bureaucrats and businessmen play the game with other people’s money, this is inevitably what happens. You see it in Medicare, in government-subsidized education and virtually every walk of life.

Richard Relph agrees:

As Milton Friedman observed many times, people spending other people’s money on someone else aren’t likely to care about either cost or value.

Mary Laiuppa:

Let me see if I understand. Taxpayer money is going to developers to build these low-income housing projects at twice the going rate and in return the developers get tax credits that suck even more money out of tax revenue that would otherwise go to schools.

And teachers are supposed to share the pain and accept more cuts to keep the district afloat?

Reginald Tolliver suggests that it’s obvious why affordable housing is expensive to build:

Have I missed something? There has never been a market to build affordable housing outright by developers, or the private sector, in the last twenty years or more. Of course, it’s more expensive and requires government assistance. I want to see the entire financials for the Mission Valley and downtown projects. Anyone who has any real estate experience knows that building housing is not the same as buying the same type of car with different packages. How many owners/developers are willing to lock their rents for the next 50 years? Lastly, Ten Fifty B is the only high rise product in the region built in the last 15 years. Have you seen how much a parcel cost in downtown?

Where the Poor Should Live

Richard Rider wrote:

One thing I think you can rely on — when a low income person wins the lottery and is selected to live in one of these luxury units, they will NEVER improve their plight. They will make every effort to keep their (reported) income below the threshold that would require them to give up their unit. They’d have to be earning at least a $70,000 income to provide the same housing on their own.

Anyway, Fred Schnaubelt jokes:

“Affordable housing” is so expensive only the poor can afford to live in it.

Donald Kimball:

Poor people have problems, and require more external care and better housing than a responsible middle class plumber and his family. I also want to lower the cost, but I also do not want to create crummy crime condos.

What Can Be Done?

John Borja:

While we all want to scream for oversight, the reality is 90 percent of the public is out to lunch and does not want to have a clue. The public simply does not want to participate in our so-called participatory democracy.

Comments quoted here may have been edited for style, grammar or readability.

I’m Grant Barrett, engagement editor for voiceofsandiego.org. I work with the community to find out their opinions on the issues that matter to San Diegans, and then I find a way to share them with everyone else. Drop me a line at grant@voiceofsandiego.org, call me at (619) 550-5666, and follow me on Twitter @grantbarrett.

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