Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins peaks at a press conference at Golden Hall. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The state continues to grapple with the coronavirus on two big fronts: the illness itself, and the resulting economic standstill.

Some developments this week:

Some of that spending has already begun flowing to San Diego.

San Diego County leaders this week officially accepted a $7.1 million infusion from the state to support their rush to temporarily shelter homeless San Diegans at the Convention Center.

The emergency state funding follows the state Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mid-March approval of SB 89, a bill poised to initially deliver $500 million statewide to support COVID-19 response efforts.

The city, county and Regional Task Force on the Homeless have opted to pour the emergency funds – specifically allocated to aid homeless Californians – into the Convention Center operation, which could eventually temporarily shelter up to 1,500 homeless San Diegans.

The City Council this week voted to accept the grant funds and direct the city’s $3.7 million share to the effort, while the county and Task Force each committed more than $1.5 million in state funds.

City officials estimated this week that the Convention Center shelter could cost $2.8 million a month if it ends up serving as many as 1,500 homeless San Diegans. The three agencies plan to seek Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to support their efforts too.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer, state Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins and others have said they are focused on making the Convention Center shelter more than a temporary safe haven. They want it to be a place to help link homeless San Diegans with longer-term help.

“It’s a path to resources and permanent housing,” Atkins said at a Tuesday press conference.

Breaking News: Funding and Building Affordable Housing Is Hard

Atkins has held the two top positions in the Legislature: her current post, and speaker of the Assembly. During her tenure, arguably the biggest piece of legislation she’s passed was 2017’s SB 2, which added a fee to certain real estate documents to fund affordable housing projects.

The need for affordable housing is as intense as ever, so VOSD’s Ashly McGlone assessed how it’s been working two years in. She found it is indeed pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars, but that money is slow to roll from the state into the hands of needy agencies:

So far, fewer than 10 SB 2 grants have been awarded in San Diego County, though several other applications are under review by state officials.

Statewide, just $35 million has been disbursed, according to officials in the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Millions more have been awarded but not yet paid out.

$3.84 million grant was set aside for Valencia Pointe, a 96-unit mixed-income affordable housing project in San Diego at the site of a Baptist church on Division Street in southeastern San Diego. A preliminary award was made by the California Housing Finance Agency, but the project, estimated to cost a total of $49 million, will only see the SB 2 grant funds if various other criteria are met.

A separate $2.5 million SB 2 grant was awarded to the county’s Health and Human Services Agency last year to provide things like rental assistance, other housing subsidies or housing relocation services and emergency housing support for the homeless.

On the other side of the equation, building those projects is more expensive than ever. The Los Angeles Times highlighted one San Diego County project – a tiny, 10-unit development in Solana Beach – that is the most expensive such project in the state, and perhaps the nation.

“It’s not just the notoriously high price of land or the rising cost of construction materials that explain why it’s so expensive to build affordable housing in California, The Times found. Numerous factors under state and local government control also are to blame, including opposition from neighbors and rules that compel developers to meet labor and environmental standards that often exceed what’s required for luxury condominiums.

All this has complicated California’s efforts to alleviate its homelessness and affordable housing crises, driven by a shortage of 1.3 million homes for low-income households, sky-high rental prices and a poverty rate to match.”

Breaking News: Funding and Building All Housing Is Hard

At a virtual town hall Thursday hosted by the California YIMBYs, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from the East Bay, said the pandemic challenges the things that Californians have long considered normal — but that the housing shortage should not be one of them.

“I don’t think we should be aiming to go back to normal, because normal was not working,” Wicks said Thursday. “We should think bigger and bolder about what that looks like.”

At the moment, though, Wicks said she’s nervous about how the pandemic will negatively impact housing policy.

Since Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order last month, Wicks said she’s had to revisit her own legislative priorities – initially consisting of about 20 bills, many pertaining to housing – to figure out how certain proposals will fare in the world of COVID-19.

“I still believe that housing is very critical in a COVID-19 situation,” Wicks said. “We’re going to see real challenges around our tenants being protected. We’re going to see issues around foreclosures. We’re going to see a lot of issues around housing because of the economic fallout.”

The Assembly was not been spared from the wave of pandemic-induced closures, and Wicks said uncertainty over when the Legislature will go back into session means there are some limitations on developing new housing policies.

One of the largest hurdles to creating more affordable housing remains the steep cost of building in California, on top of state and local regulations that make the process more difficult than in other states, Wicks said.

Still, she said, housing policy must be aimed at protecting those who will feel an economic downturn the hardest.

Weber Floats Summer School Options

San Diego schools have been closed for nearly a month due to the coronavirus.

At a teleconference on Thursday, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said districts should stop expecting schools to reopen this semester and instead focus on how to make sure kids are caught up when they likely walk back on campus in September.

She’s working with state Superintendent Tony Thurmond on a plan for California schools that could include intensive summer school and Saturday school, though the details have yet to be hashed out.

The teleconference included six local superintendents, all of whom gave a rundown of how their districts are supporting students and families during the pandemic. They said they’re all experiencing similar challenges, including computer and wifi availability, implementation of distance learning, food distribution and homelessness among the student population.

With families needing to depend on internet resources now more than ever, schools have been forced to grapple with the fact that not all students have the technology or space necessary to engage in distance learning.

“There are 6,000 students in our district who are currently homeless,” said Cindy Marten, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. “We need help figuring out how to reach them so we can teach them.”

Some districts are trying to erase those inequities by sending thousands of Chromebook computers directly to families. At San Diego Unified, Marten said the goal is to distribute more than 40,000 laptops to families, about 30,000 more than have already gone out. Whether families have reliable internet connection in their homes is a separate issue.

Paul Gothold, San Diego County superintendent of schools, which oversees some schools but mostly provides services and oversight for districts in the area, said officials are working within an imperfect system.

“We’re trying to mitigate some of these gaps that have historically existed and we’re making big investments in some of our communities to make sure our kids know they’re going to be OK,” he said.

He also noted that most districts do not have specific plans in place for addressing less urgent matters, like high school graduation ceremonies and summer sessions, but those ideas are in the works.

Marten is also scheduled to discuss the district’s challenges on a teleconference with Assemblyman Todd Gloria on Friday.

Issa Jumps on the Anti-AB 5 Train

Republican Darrell Issa, who’s running for Congress in eastern San Diego County, joined a long list of conservatives this week by urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to suspend AB 5, the law limiting when employers can classify workers as independent contractors, during the coronavirus crisis.

Issa wrote in a statement that “AB5 requires small businesses and companies to divest themselves of independent contractors and gig economy workers.”

That is not true. AB 5 codifies the circumstances in which companies can use independent contractors – and includes an array of exceptions to the law for certain companies that don’t meet those circumstances.

Republican state lawmakers have introduced several measures seeking to chip away or outright overturn the law, but it’s unclear how many of those will move forward now that the coronavirus has upended the legislative schedule for the year.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who wrote AB 5, told me last month that she still plans to move forward with efforts to amend the law.

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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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