Ten Fifty B is an affordable housing high-rise downtown. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions and VOSD investigates.

The question from VOSD reader Sean Woodard: “With all the buzz about affordable housing, I would like to know what affordable housing actually is, how it actually works. Are they apartments, condos, single-family homes? Do the residents actually own the homes, or are they rentals?”

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As San Diego grapples with a housing shortage that has led to surging rents and home prices, more policymakers and community leaders are talking about the need for more affordable housing. Housing advocates are also pushing for a November 2020 property-tax measure to pay for thousands of new affordable homes.

But what exactly do we mean when we talk about affordable housing?

Per the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, it’s a housing option that allows a low-income person or family to spend less than 30 percent of their income on housing. In San Diego, subsidies are often required to make that work.

There is one distinction to get out of the way. Despite San Diego’s housing woes, there is still some naturally affordable housing that low-income San Diegans can afford to rent or own without outside help or government aid. Examples include units in older apartment complexes or single-room occupancy hotels that have become increasingly rare in San Diego.

There are fewer and fewer of these options these days.

For that reason, housing advocates and politicians are increasingly rallying for more government-supported affordable housing.

These are housing options where the rent or the cost of the home itself – or both – is subsidized to lessen the financial burden on the person or family living there.

Construction of these units can be supported by federal and state tax incentives, the city’s inclusionary housing fund and an array of other government-backed programs.

Low-income families can also receive federally funded housing vouchers to help cover their rent.

Affordable housing projects and low-income housing assistance typically target people making up to 80 percent of the area median income – up to $85,600 for a family of four.

Most families and individuals receiving this aid in the city make far less.

The Housing Commission reports that 81 percent of the the more than 15,400 households in the city with federal Section 8 housing vouchers have incomes at or below 30 percent of the city’s median income. For a family of four, that would amount to annual income at or below $32,100.

Individuals and families who rely on vouchers rent their homes, but low-income San Diegans also have a few options to buy affordable homes or condos.

The Housing Commission’s so-called affordable for-sale housing program offers low- and middle-income residents who have not previously owned a home the opportunity to buy a condo or townhome below market value at one of a handful of projects in the city. The commission also has other programs to help low and middle-income families buy their first homes.

San Diego Habitat for Humanity builds and sells affordable homes too.

But the vast majority of affordable units are rentals.

Sometimes housing vouchers, which cover a portion of a low-income family’s rent, are assigned to specific housing projects with affordable rents.

Some of these projects solely serve low-income families, seniors or individuals. Others provide what’s known as permanent supportive housing, which come with an array of on-site services and amenities for formerly homeless people who are particularly vulnerable.

Families with vouchers also often seek out options in apartment complexes that aren’t solely for low-income people.

In all cases, families with vouchers commit to pay 30 percent of their income in rent. Then they search for units that match up with the requirements of their vouchers. If they choose a unit that exceeds the payment amount associated with their voucher and ZIP code of choice, they’ll have to cover the difference.

Getting a voucher isn’t easy. The Housing Commission reports the average wait time for one is about a decade.

Even when someone gets a voucher, it’s far from a golden ticket. There are a limited number of properties where low-income San Diegans can use their vouchers, often leading them to spend weeks and even months seeking a place to live.

City Council President Georgette Gómez last year successfully pushed a new city ordinance to bar landlords from discriminating against voucher-holders to try to help address the dearth of options.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other city leaders have also pushed reforms to try to encourage developers to build more affordable housing where those vouchers could be used.

Housing vouchers and affordable housing opportunities aren’t necessarily handed out indefinitely and can come with strings attached for tenants who are dubbed able to work.

Most voucher-holders don’t fit the latter category.

Housing Commission spokesman Scott Marshall said 60 percent of the city’s voucher-holders are elderly, disabled or full-time students.

In the city, if one or multiple family members are considered eligible to work per the Housing Commission’s Path to Success initiative, voucher-holders must pay at least $300 a month in rent. These families are encouraged to try to increase their income, potentially lessening the amount of assistance they require. The Housing Commission offers free programs to help families accomplish this.

If, at some point, the family no longer qualifies for rental assistance, the family would cover their full rent themselves, though they could remain eligible for aid for six months if their income decreases, Marshall said.

The rules associated with increases in incomes can vary by specific affordable housing projects or units, though. They often come down to requirements tied to programs that developers used to finance construction.

Some allow families to remain in their units if they pay a higher rent.

Sometimes families must prepare to move on. That’s the case for projects or units funded by the city’s inclusionary housing and density bonus programs. Both programs require property owners to issue 180-day move-out notices to tenants found to be making more than the income levels owners have committed to serve during annual checks on tenants’ incomes, Marshall said.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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