Serving Seniors opened its 62-unit Schmale Family Senior Residence in Ramona last year. More than 3,000 low-income seniors applied to live in the complex. / Photo courtesy of Serving Seniors

When the nonprofit Serving Seniors opened the doors to its 62-unit affordable housing project in Ramona last summer, it had to turn away most of the 3,000 low-income seniors who’d sought a spot there.

It was just one example of the massive gap between the number of low-income San Diegans seeking affordable homes and rental assistance and the supply of those resources.

“You’re making a decision to move away from San Diego, an hour east to live, but I’ve got 3,000 people on the waiting list to get in,” Serving Seniors CEO Paul Downey said.

In the last three years, the San Diego Housing Commission reports more than 22,000 families have added their names to a roughly 10-year waiting list for Section 8 housing aid to subsidize their rents. County officials say they are getting about 500 new applicants a month.

The intense demand for affordable apartments and housing assistance has led to policy prescriptions including revisions to a city mandate for market-rate developers to deliver affordable housing units, a $50 million county trust fund aimed at bolstering affordable housing production and a proposed November 2020 affordable housing bond measure in the city. Officials across the state, led by Gov. Gavin Newsom, have also urged the Trump administration to deploy more housing vouchers in California.

The gap between demand and available homes and assistance is significant. A National Low Income Housing Coalition analysis of 2017 Census data estimated that San Diego County needs 136,631 more affordable rental homes to meet regional demand.

The analysis found there were more than 183,200 very low or extremely low-income households in the county but just 46,600 units that could accommodate them with rents that didn’t surpass 30 percent of their income.

In San Diego County, a family of four with an income up to $53,500 is considered very low-income while a family of four making $32,100 or less is defined as extremely low-income.

[infogram id=”3f6c74aa-efdf-419e-87e0-640e1b45036d” prefix=”koM” format=”interactive” title=”Low Income Rentals San Diego Needs”]

From 2010 through 2018, the county and cities across the region permitted just 13 percent of affordable homes that the state had called for the region to produce by 2020 – and just 3,587 of the 36,450 units the state said were needed for San Diegans with very low incomes.

The city of San Diego, which has the region’s largest share of affordable housing, permitted just 4,891 units reserved for low-income San Diegans during that same period – 13 percent of the state-set goal. Less than half of those units were reserved for San Diegans with very low incomes.

Many of those units were supported by federal and state tax incentives, the city’s inclusionary housing fund and other government-backed programs.

[infogram id=”74778cfd-f0b1-4a77-bacc-7387e92c70ba” prefix=”3cH” format=”interactive” title=”Permitted Units Issued by Affordability in San Diego”]

The sluggish production has inspired affordable housing advocates to rally behind a $900 million housing bond measure they believe could fund 7,500 new affordable housing units in the city.

As policymakers and activists discuss potential solutions, low-income San Diegans are experiencing agonizing waits for affordable apartments and housing aid to subsidize rents in existing units.

Joyce Roberts, 72, was on the city’s Section 8 waiting list for 11 years before she received a Section 8 housing voucher in 2018.

Yet she feels lucky. A Housing Commission staffer initially told Roberts she could wait as long as 15 years for a voucher – and Roberts managed to find a Clairemont apartment that met her needs shortly after receiving the assistance. Roberts’ new apartment also materialized soon after her daughter moved to Nevada, leaving behind an Oak Park apartment the family had shared for years. Roberts couldn’t afford that apartment on her own.

Roberts, now a board member for statewide advocacy group Housing California, said her experience is not the norm in San Diego. A friend who received a housing voucher just a year earlier had encountered two- to five-year waiting lists at multiple affordable housing complexes she visited.

“Only by the grace of God things worked out for me, but it’s not easy at all,” Roberts said.

Others who work in affordable housing across the region say waits for subsidized apartments have been common for years.

Rickie Brown, who manages the 94-unit Hollywood Palms apartment complex in City Heights, said the waiting list for two-bedroom apartments is typically two to three years – and can be longer for three- and four-bedroom apartments.

Waits like those often force San Diegans who receive housing vouchers to scour the region for affordable apartments that are increasingly difficult to find – and also being sought by middle-class San Diegans.

Last year, the Housing Commission reports it took Section 8 voucher-holders in the city an average of 60 days to find an apartment. County officials say the regional average was about 78 days the last two years.

But nearly a third of renters with county vouchers took at least 120 days to sign a lease, county spokesman Craig Sturak said.

Many issues can complicate voucher-holders’ search for housing, including the dearth of available affordable housing. Voucher payments are capped, meaning low-income San Diegans must find an apartment that is below their voucher’s payment amount or cover the difference themselves.

Some landlords are also reluctant to rent to Section 8 voucher-holders, a challenge both city and state lawmakers have separately sought to combat with legislation barring landlords from discriminating against low-income tenants.

Then there’s the fact that many families use their vouchers and affordable housing for years, limiting the availability for new families and individuals adding their names to long waiting lists.

Both the city and county report that their voucher-holders rely on housing subsidies for an average of 11 and 12 years, respectively.

Rebecca Louie, chief operating officer for affordable housing developer Wakeland Housing, said turnover at affordable housing properties is typically limited too.

For example, Louie said, Wakeland’s 10 City Heights properties have seen an annual turnover rate of just 11 percent the last few years.

The Housing Commission reports that it has seen a similar turnover rate in the more than 3,500 units it owns or manages in recent years.

That’s because there are few other affordable or market-rate options for low-income renters who may want to move on.

“It’s a big leap to go into anything else when there’s such limited availability,” Louie 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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