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Over the last decade, there’s been a lot of political debate surrounding homelessness and the affordable housing crisis in San Diego. But for all the talk, San Diego County still has the fourth highest homeless population in the country and with a median home value of $633,500, it’s still one of the most expensive places to live in the state. And when it comes to affordable housing remedies, many of our elected officials blame communities for a “Not In My Backyard” stance when it comes to building affordable housing units.
In his 2019 State of the City address, Mayor Kevin Faulconer said, “We must change from a city that shouts ‘Not in my backyard’ to one that proclaims ‘Yes in my backyard.’” The mayor is correct, but even his YIMBY proposal didn’t go far enough. Although the City Council voted unanimously to waive a number of fees associated with the construction of “companion units” — otherwise known as accessory dwelling units or granny flats — the city could do more.
To help manage the affordable housing and homeless crisis, officials on both the left and the right need to embrace YIMBY with actions, not just words. The city needs to make two bold moves: waive all permit fees associated with granny flats and subsidize the construction of a backyard granny flat for homeowners who agree to allow an individual or family experiencing homelessness to live in the unit free of charge while they get back on their feet. Homeless families and individuals would be screened by nonprofit organizations, and if they aren’t in need of intensive services, they would be matched with homeowners. In turn, the homeowners could indicate their preference for the type of tenant they want.
The amount of the housing subsidy would reflect the amount of time the homeowner agrees to allow an individual or family experiencing homelessness to live free of charge; if the term is long enough, the subsidy could pay for the granny flat entirely.
This plan would not call for the city to purchase any land, since the property is already privately owned. And when the term is completed, the property owner’s improvements would be taxed at the normal property tax rate, thereby increasing revenue to the city for decades to come.
This program not only benefits those who are transitionally experiencing homelessness; it also eventually creates housing for San Diego residents who may need a granny flat for a senior parent or a debt-burdened student returning home from college.
A similar program is already being implemented in Los Angles. The city plans to offer incentives worth between $10,000 and $30,000 to make it cheaper and easier for homeowners to build units if they promise to rent them to homeless residents for three years.
Make no mistake about it: More and more families are just a couple paychecks away from becoming homeless. The recent government shutdown caused roughly 800,000 federal workers to miss paychecks. And even though the workers missed only two pay periods, that was enough to devastate their ability to purchase basic necessities, such as food and household goods. Many could not make their mortgage payment, and eventually they might have faced eviction. A University of Michigan study found that following the 2013 shutdown, the median worker had only enough cash or other liquid assets to cover just eight days of their average household spending.
People lose their jobs every day and become unemployed. Many of them have families with school-aged children, and some of these families end up homeless and living in a car, in a shelter or on the streets. Instances of homelessness due to a loss of work are rare, brief and usually non-recurring, so interventions for these situations that include social services, counseling, job training and — most of all — housing need to become a core function of local government.
Homelessness is not a crime, and many who are experiencing homelessness for the first time need assistance. We cannot “solve” the homeless crisis, but we can work to better manage it. And if these common-sense programs can measurably improve the homeless and affordable housing crisis, then let’s be bold. Let’s stop talking about it and implement them now.
Mark Powell is a San Diego Association of Realtors board director and San Diego County Board of Education trustee, representing District 1. He’s also an adjunct professor at National University.