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After the Poway City Council denied a low-income veterans housing project in November, residents opposed to the project rejected suggestions that they were “anti-veteran.”
They are right. The opposition to the Habitat for Humanity veterans project had nothing to do with veterans.
The opposition stemmed from fear of low-income housing and the people who would live there.
One resident, Linda Laurie, summed it up perfectly at the November meeting where the project was ultimately rejected.
“There was never ever anything said that veterans would bring crime,” Laurie said. “No one said veterans didn’t deserve a place to live. No one said that veterans were going to cause more parking and cause an inconvenience to our neighborhood. There were comments to that respect when we only heard the words low-income housing, but we were not even talking about veterans at that time.”
Habitat for Humanity San Diego proposed building 22 for-sale, affordable homes for veterans on a roughly 2.5-acre piece of land that the city is legally bound to use for subsidized housing.
But after months of contentious public hearings, the City Council rejected the project with a 3-2 vote in November.
Even Poway Mayor Steve Vaus – who voted against the project, citing its cost – acknowledged that perceptions of low-income housing played a role in the neighborhood opposition.
“There were people who spoke when we had workshops that made me very uncomfortable, essentially saying we don’t want low-income housing in our neighborhood,” Vaus told me.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been watching communities throughout the county grapple with affordable housing, and it’s been especially difficult in more affluent areas.
In Encinitas, I watched residents repeatedly oppose state laws intended to further affordable housing. In Solana Beach, one 10-unit low-income project, The Pearl, has been slapped with such burdensome litigation that the same developer has completed six low-income developments in other parts of San Diego and Riverside counties, while still unable to break ground in the beach community.
The opposition in Poway listed concerns over crime, density, funding, parking and traffic – issues that quell low-income housing developments throughout the region.
But in all the battles over affordable housing that I’ve witnessed, residents have never so clearly articulated their fear of low-income housing.
After the Habitat project failed, a group of livid residents came to a City Council meeting in December to reprimand Councilman Jim Cunningham – who spearheaded the project – for making them look bad after they opposed it.
“I think the concern that some folks had – and you perhaps don’t know me well enough – that I’m trying to sneak in, God forbid, a low-to-moderate income housing project into your community and wrapping it in the flag of a veterans project,” Cunningham told the angry residents.
In an interview after that December meeting, Cunningham told me that one of his first Council hearings eight years ago was also about an affordable housing project.
“The angry crowd showed up and they were armed with misinformation of what low-income housing looked like and what it would do to their neighborhood,” he said. “I was effective back then in quelling the concerns. I count on Council members to look through the fears of people and to look for the best interest of our community and people who deserve to live in it, but can’t afford it.”
In December 2014, the city entered into a negotiating agreement with Habitat San Diego. Since then, Habitat has been working with city staff to suss out the details of the development agreement and design the project. Staff had recommended approval of the project.
The City Council was to hear details on the development and vote on the project plans and the development agreement on July 19 of this year.
Dozens of neighbors showed up to the meeting, demanding that the city reconsider.
“I think we would be foolish to think this project would enhance the value of our homes,” one resident, Lynda Jeffries, told the Council.
“All of us from this neighborhood are telling you that we do not feel safe with this project,” Laurie said.
Laurie said later in an interview that she had her house broken into about four years ago. She also said she didn’t know at the time that the Habitat project was for veterans.
At that meeting, Cunningham noted that many of the speakers linked low-income housing with increased crime in their neighborhood.
He tried to address that concern, asking Poway law enforcement if there is a disproportionate amount of crime in affordable developments. The sheriff’s office said that the city has very low crime in general and because the project would be for-sale homes and not rentals, they would expect even less.
Some of the veterans on the development’s interest list, who hoped to live in those homes once they were built, also attended that July hearing.
One of them, Navy veteran Josie Agorchukwu, saw through the arguments about density, traffic, parking and crime.
“My heartbreak was in this room,” Agorchukwu said. “To know that my fellow Americans don’t want me to live next to them because it’s an inconvenience the way that I might drive. I’m sorry. It wasn’t an inconvenience during the three wars that I served. Yet, right now because you might have to slow down, because I might need to drive – you might need to turn around – where’s the humanity?”
The Council decided to table the vote and scheduled a workshop for August so residents could give more feedback.
The day after that July meeting, Jeffries sent an e-mail to the City Council members, expressing her dissatisfaction with the way the meeting went, with the way the residents felt they had been shamed for not wanting the project:
“Deep anger in regard to those who came to speak on behalf of Habitat who do not live in or near our community …
The choice of all black (except one spokesperson) former military further left a sad taste because somehow we are all white and if we say anything then we are automatically biased against military and blacks. …
****Bottom line – all agreed that we as citizens of the USA owe our military men and women health care and services through the VA, we owe then respect for their service, we owe them the GI Bill or some assistance to get an education and a start in their career choice. PERIOD.
We do NOT OWE THEM A HOUSE IN POWAY!!!”
Jeffries didn’t respond to requests for comment.
At the August workshop, the neighbors showed up again. Their concerns hadn’t changed.
One resident, Peter DeHoff, suggested the Council make the homes just for moderate-income veterans instead of low- to moderate-income veterans. Poway would still satisfy state affordable housing requirements that way.
Agorchukwu was at that meeting, too. This time her granddaughter was at her side.
“So, I bring you a little density, because I’m going to have my granddaughter, but she can sing and dance,” Agorchukwu said. “I’m saying don’t lock us out because of a technicality. I’m saying don’t blame us for the parking. Don’t blame us for the road, for the issues that exist. Give us a fair chance to be your neighbors.”
Finally, on Nov. 15, the Council was to vote on the project.
“It is tough to build low-income housing,” Lori Holt Pfeiler, the head of Habitat for Humanity San Diego, told the Council that day. “No one ever wants low-income housing next to their homes.”
The same residents with the same concerns lined up to speak in opposition.
Two Council members and the mayor voted against the project. They cited funding and traffic concerns and uncertainty about the integrity of Habitat for Humanity San Diego.
All three voiced concerns over the breakdown of the relationship between Habitat for Humanity San Diego and the California Department of Veteran’s Affairs, which would have helped with funding.
CalVet left the picture in early 2015, and the City Council had since unanimously voted to re-up its agreement with Habitat, knowing CalVet was no longer involved.
Councilmen Dave Grosch and Barry Leonard, who voted against the project, said in interviews they hadn’t brought up their concerns over CalVet earlier because they hadn’t understood the gravity of the agency’s departure.
“I think there was a problem with the process as it was followed,” Leonard said. “That was a critical event and there should have been a flag. Someone should’ve said, ‘Hey, this is significant.’”
Habitat had committed to using its own reserves and fundraising to make up the funding difference when CalVet left, said Holt Pfeiler. She also said that there would have been a funding gap regardless of whether CalVet was involved.
In addition to the plot of land where the project would be built, Habitat was asking the city for more than $800,000 – $300,000 of which was gap money after Habitat scaled the project back, from 26 to 22 homes, at residents’ request. The money would have come from an account that must be used for affordable housing.
Councilman John Mullin, who voted in favor of the project, was outraged by how his colleagues dwelled on the CalVet matter.
“If you want to object to the project, object to it, but I think that is a smoke screen of monumental proportions,” Mullin told them at the November meeting.
Leonard and Grosch also cited traffic and parking concerns.
The roads and intersection by the development already endure bad traffic because of nearby schools. But city staff had determined the project wouldn’t have made it significantly worse.
After the project failed, the Council decided to allocate $30,000 to address the area’s traffic woes anyway.
Habitat included more parking than the city requires, but much of it was in garages. Neighbors said garages would likely be used more for storage than for parking, ultimately resulting in the new residents parking in the old residents’ neighborhoods.
Grosch, who is a veteran, said there were too many problems with the project.
“I just think this project wasn’t up to the highest standards,” he said.
All the Council members say they don’t think the Habitat project is indicative of the future of low-income housing in Poway.
Vaus said he is in discussions with another low-income housing developer for a different veterans’ housing project.
Another low-income project is working its way through the pipeline called Villa de Vida and would be for developmentally disabled adults.
While that project may face hurdles, Council members said they aren’t bracing themselves for the same pushback.
At a City Council meeting about the project, there were certainly more speakers in favor of the development than against it. But even the residents who supported Villa de Vida revealed their preconceived notions of low-income people.
“The special needs community that we’re talking about serving here are not the problem-makers that you might get with low-income housing,” said Poway resident Brian Miller. “They live clean, wholesome lifestyles, very, very consistent with what we want here in Poway.”