The Village of Escaya, a housing development in Chula Vista / Photo by Ry Rivard

Every elected official in San Diego County needs to grapple with the region’s housing crisis.

The county overall has failed to build enough homes to keep pace with the rate of economic and population growth for decades. As a result, just 27 percent of households can afford the county’s median home, at $655,000.

It’s an issue that whichever of the candidates vying to represent District 1 on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which encompasses the South Bay and parts of the city of San Diego, will have to face if elected.

Four Democrats are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican Greg Cox: Rafael Castellanos, an attorney and Port of San Diego commissioner; Nora Vargas, a Southwestern Community College trustee and former Planned Parenthood executive; state Sen. Ben Hueso and Sophia Rodriguez, an employee at the county’s Health and Human Services Agency. A Republican, Tony Villafranca, a real estate agent, has also thrown his hat into the race.

The annual median income in District 1 is about $10,000 lower than the countywide median income, making housing woes there all the more acute. Many South Bay leaders in Chula Vista, National City and Imperial Beach feel like the region has done more than its fair share to build much-needed housing.

It’s become increasingly clear over the past few years that the County Board of Supervisors plays a big role in addressing the crisis. The county has allocated slightly more than half of a newly created $25 million housing trust fund to build 453 affordable units, and just approved a pool of flexible funds to be used for a housing program. And the fate of about 10,000 homes being proposed in unincorporated areas of the county hangs in limbo due to pending legal action and ballot measures.

Each candidate has an idea of how he or she would address housing. Some of their ideas are as bold as building a new bedroom community in the southeastern-most reaches of the county or floating a $1 billion countywide infrastructure bond for affordable housing.

What to Do With County Land

Thousands of proposed homes in unincorporated areas of the county are in limbo.

A judge ruled in December 2018 that county must redo its climate action plan. The county appealed the decision, but several large development projects remain on hold until the plan’s legal issues are sorted out.

The Board of Supervisors approved the 2,135-home Newland Sierra project in the northeastern unincorporated part of the county a few months before the ruling, but a March 2020 ballot measure from project opponents seeks to repeal the approval. Another March 2020 ballot measure, backed by a group called Save Our San Diego Countryside, or SOS, would require a countywide vote anytime a development seeks special approval because it doesn’t fit the county’s general plan for growth.

In the coming years, county supervisors will have to weigh the environmental impacts of sprawl developments built far from transit options and other infrastructure – like increased greenhouse gas emissions from car trips and increased wildfire risks – with the need to increase housing supply.

Rodriguez said that when it comes to building in in unincorporated areas, the focus should be on low-income housing near main roads and public transit.

“If we do approve projects in unincorporated areas, we need to make sure they are not a safety issue when it comes to wildfires, and make sure they are near main roads for transportation,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t blur the lines between the housing crisis and environmental risks.”

Two candidates, Castellanos and Vargas, have made clear that they think so-called “ballot box planning” is wrong, and that elected officials, not voters, should be making those calls.

“I absolutely believe that we have a responsibility to take care of our environment and make sure that we are in a place where we are very mindful of what we’re leaving for the future,” Vargas said. “When it comes to some of those land use decisions, I think the supervisors are responsible for the implementation of the general plan. I don’t think those should be made at the ballot box.”

Castellanos said that for years, local politicians have failed in terms of housing, creating an environment where battles over individual projects happen at the ballot – when, at the end of the day, those projects won’t make a big dent in the housing supply.

“We’re going to have to grapple over greenfield development, but right now we’re doing it at the ballot box,” he said. “I think ballot box planning is terrible.”

Hueso declined to comment for this story, but at VOSD’s Politifest event he indicated that he hadn’t yet taken a position on the SOS measure. Hueso said the measure had some merits but expressed concern about its backers.

“There’s some good things to support in it, but in its current form, we need a response to the amount of big money that’s getting involved in these decisions that affect the voters,” Hueso said.

While Vargas thinks the supervisors should be governing land use decisions based on the existing general plan, Castellanos said he believes that the contentious battles that come with projects seeking an exemption, like Newland Sierra and Lilac Hills Ranch, signifies a need for improvements to the plan.

Castellanos said if he was elected, he would support updating the general plan.

Back to Bonds

Castellanos put out a four-point plan on how the county can address housing.

The county needs to build more than 13,000 homes a year to keep up with job and population growth, according to the San Diego Regional Association of Governments.

“The only way we’re going to get there is if we talk about big, bold comprehensive plans,” Castellanos said.

Many of the housing battles happening now, like quarrels over individual developments and density bonus deals that incentivize developers to build more units for lower-income residents, deal with issues that will make a marginal difference improving the region’s housing woes, he said.

The plan includes proposals to lower approval times for housing developments and take advantage of federal opportunity zones in the county, where investors would receive tax benefits. It also includes opportunities to obtain financing for affordable housing and infrastructure through an infrastructure financing district and a $1 billion infrastructure bond.

Vargas and Rodriguez disagree that a bond should be an answer.

The county has plenty it could do before considering a bond, Vargas said.

“The county actually has resources that we could be allocating for additional housing in the region,” Vargas said. “I think the county should be responsible, we really need to make sure the county is responsible along with the federal and state government to subsidize housing.”

Rodriguez said people in the South Bay are tired of bonds, which generally require tax increases. She pointed to money mismanagement by the Sweetwater Union High School District, and noted that Chula Vista recently passed a bond aimed at generating money for public safety improvements.

“We’re not seeing results, so people are definitely concerned about all these new tax propositions,” Rodriguez said. “We need to be considerate of our residents. I’m very weary of bond measures.”

Rodriguez said that if elected, she would try to lobby for more state and federal funds to put toward affordable housing and the infrastructure needed to support it.

Housing Woes Aren’t Just About Housing

Vargas and Villafranca said they think it’s important to remember that housing affordability issues don’t happen in a silo.

“I think when anyone says there is one plan to solve these issues, the complexities are bigger than that,” Vargas said.

Building more housing can’t be the only way to address housing issues, she said. Parallel work needs to be done to make sure people have access to jobs and education.

Vargas said so-called wraparound services that tend to be aimed at the homeless population should be expanded to help more working families.

She proposed, for example, using navigator programs or promotores to better connect communities with government services and resources.

Villafranca said that one of the problems with building affordable units in areas that aren’t affordable is that families still can’t build equity. The cost of living – to buy groceries or send your kid to school – may still be higher.

“It’s more than affording a property,” Villafranca said. “People can’t integrate into communities.”

Rather than try to integrate different socioeconomic backgrounds into existing communities, Villafranca proposes building an entirely new community in the southeastern reaches of the county, near Campo, Potrero and Dulzura.

National City, he said, has a population of nearly 60,000 and only encompasses nine square miles, so building another small bedroom community could ostensibly support a decent number of people.

The area Villafranca has proposed would be close to a new planned border crossing, which will create economic opportunities, he said. The commute to downtown San Diego would be comparable to that made by people living in Temecula, he said.

“We would be giving them a foundation,” Villafranca said. “Affordable living means that you’re actually being given options that pay for opportunities.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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