This story is part of our new reporting series that explores the different pressures affecting cost of living for San Diegans. View more stories here.
Seven years ago, Daniel Palmer was relieved to get a Section 8 voucher after more than a decade of waiting. He moved from his car into a one-bedroom apartment in North Park.
Now the 61-year-old is uncertain how much longer he can hold onto his home and fears he could end up homeless again.
In late January, Palmer’s property management company notified him that his rent would increase from $1,025 to $1,950 come April 1. A few weeks later, the San Diego Housing Commission notified Palmer it had signed off on the rent increase after a required formal request from his landlord – and that he’d be paying hundreds more a month even with a Section 8 housing subsidy.
He’s now bracing for an eviction notice. Palmer only pulls in about $1,000 a month. He can’t afford the rent increase and isn’t sure where else to go.
So-called housing choice vouchers like Palmer has can move with tenants to new properties. But it isn’t always easy to find a landlord that will take them despite policy protections meant to ensure acceptance – or properties with rents that work out financially for the tenant.
Palmer looked at apartments in Mission Valley last year after a new owner bought his complex and couldn’t find other options that penciled – even with a bolstered housing subsidy that would come with a move to that neighborhood.
“I’m heading toward homelessness,” Palmer said.
Palmer is one of countless San Diegans tormented by an unforgiving housing market with rents and housing prices that are increasingly out of reach for seniors, families and workers earning low or middle-class wages.
A regional housing shortage that spawned those surging rents and home prices has also spawned booming demand for rental assistance and subsidized affordable housing that falls short of that need.
Rising costs are also hitting landlords and new building owners who can pull in more money if they pursue renovations and new tenants not covered by a state rent cap law that went into effect two years ago, a dynamic that Palmer and fellow residents at North Park Towers believe they are now living through.
Palmer’s neighbors without Section 8 subsidies have seen two rent increases since a state law two years ago limited rent hikes for many tenants statewide to 5 percent plus inflation. The North Park residents argue the latest 10 percent increase for most residents exceeds what’s allowable under the new law and emphasize that some amenities such as the complex’s pool and some of its parking have been blocked off for months, meaning tenants are paying more for fewer amenities.
Property manager Prime Asset Management told Voice of San Diego the landlord would not comment but an unnamed attorney representing the company previously told Fox 5 San Diego that the state law was “written ambiguously” and that the latest rent increase was lawful.
Palmer’s neighbor Charles Rogal, who has lived in the complex for 17 years, said he and other tenants previously received multiple warnings that the landlord might issue a notice to vacate the property.
Rogal, 64, fears he and his wife will be forced to leave San Diego if they have to move out, a prospect they hope to avoid because he’s on a local kidney transplant list. The couple has been on the city’s Section 8 waiting list for 11 years.
“If we have to leave here, there’s no place we can go in San Diego,” Rogal said.
Rogal’s predicament highlights a longstanding problem in San Diego: There isn’t enough naturally affordable or subsidized affordable housing – or housing assistance – for everyone who needs it as rents skyrocket.
A Realtor.com analysis of rental listings on its site documented a 29 percent year-over-year spike in asking rents in the San Diego metro while Apartment List research tallied an 18 percent spike in the city. Home prices have also hit new records, making it more difficult for renters to become owners.
Those realities leave Rogal and others living in properties with historically below market rents to desperately hold onto their homes even as their monthly bills increase. They live in constant fear as a result. They expect an even tougher situation in another apartment – if they can find one.
A California Housing Partnership report released last year found that 132,298 San Diego County households considered in need of low-income housing did not have access to an affordable home.
That total based on an analysis of 2019 Census data likely understates the housing need as it only includes San Diegans defined as low or extremely low income.
The analysis relied on federal Department of Housing and Urban Development definitions that deem a family of four with an income up to $60,600 as very low-income while a family of four making $36,350 or less is defined as extremely low-income
San Diego has already lost an untold number of existing affordable and so-called naturally affordable housing units. It expects to lose many more in the years to come without drastic action.
A 2020 San Diego Housing Commission report estimated that the city alone could lose more than half of its affordable rental units over the next two decades. Naturally affordable units like those Rogal and Palmer have lived in for years – which are typically older properties with below market rents without government subsidies – were considered particularly susceptible to redevelopment and rent hikes.
New construction historically hasn’t kept up with those losses or the regional demand for affordable options.
The county and cities across the region reported permitting just 17 percent of affordable homes that the state called for the region to produce between 2013 and 2020 – and just 4,934 of the 36,450 units the state said were needed for San Diegans with very low incomes, according to the state’s housing agency. Many units that materialized were supported by federal and state tax incentives, local sources such as the city’s inclusionary housing fund and other government-backed programs.
State and local government leaders have pledged to fast-track reforms, redouble low and middle-income housing development and bolster preservation efforts. But they can’t respond fast enough to a problem that’s been building for years.
Now the problem – and demand – only seem to be growing along with inflation.
Affordable housing developers and advocates have for years reported surging demand for new and even existing affordable housing units. They say the upward trend is only continuing.
Michelle Sites, a vice president at ConAm Management Corporation overseeing dozens of affordable properties in the region, said a 96-unit project in Linda Vista serving low-income residents recently drew more than 1,000 applicants in two weeks.
“We’re still getting a ton of applicants,” Sites said.
And John Seymour, a vice president for developer National Community Renaissance, said would-be residents are continuing to add their names to the waiting list for a 65-unit project in Encanto that’s already full.
“We’re seeing a very large spike up in the waiting lists,” Seymour said.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has meant that fewer people living in affordable housing properties are moving out and elsewhere.
From 2016 through 2019, the San Diego Housing Commission reported that the affordable housing units it owned and managed saw a 10 to 13 percent annual turnover rate.
That rate fell to just over 8 percent the last two years and is just 6.8 percent so far in 2022, Housing Commission spokesman Scott Marshall wrote in an email.
Steeper rents, the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and a dearth of available affordable homes have led more San Diegans to seek housing aid.
The pandemic inspired federal officials to deploy an avalanche of COVID-related rental assistance to help Americans hold onto their rental homes.
Indeed, the county reported it had doled out nearly $166 million in federal rental assistance tied to the pandemic to more than 18,400 households through mid-February while the city’s Housing Commission reported $180.7 million in payments to more than 16,100 households with COVID-related financial challenges through early March.
But the waiting game has continued for tens of thousands of residents vying for longer term Section 8 housing assistance.
The city Housing Commission and the county housing department each have their own waiting lists. The city doles out vouchers to people living within its boundaries while the county serves people living in unincorporated areas and a number of cities throughout the region.
More than 124,000 families are now on the city’s waiting list, a number the Housing Commission said grows every year.
The county, meanwhile, reported in 2019 that its Section 8 waiting list was growing by about 500 new applicants a month and that it had about 40,000 households on its waiting list.
Those numbers have spiked.
County spokeswoman Sarah Sweeney told VOSD the county has averaged about 1,200 new Section 8 applicants each month in the last two years and as of earlier this month, had a waiting list of nearly 70,000 applicants.
The average wait for those who have recently gotten vouchers? Twelve years in the city and twelve-and-a-half years in the county.
But getting a voucher – as Palmer has learned – isn’t necessarily a golden ticket.
Voucher holders have to compete in a tight market and find homes that they can afford with capped Section 8 subsidies that can sometimes fall below surging market rents.
It now takes residents who receive county vouchers an average of 90 days to find a home, up from 80 days in 2019, Sweeney said.
And in the city, it’s even worse. The Housing Commission says voucher holders now need about 104 days to find a home, up from an average of 60 days in 2019.
Gil Vera, a senior attorney for Legal Aid Society of San Diego, said statewide reforms enacted just before the pandemic haven’t protected low-income tenants as much as some advocates had hoped.
While the state rent cap law doesn’t specifically exempt Section 8 voucher holders, it states that housing that is rent restricted per an agreement with a government agency or another recorded document is not covered.
This means people living in affordable housing units and projects who don’t have vouchers aren’t protected by the rent cap. Instead, their rents must comply with the maximum rents HUD has set for tenants’ income levels – and those annual rent increases can surpass the state cap.
And at least some landlords have read the law to suggest that Section 8 tenants aren’t covered by it. That makes Section 8 tenants susceptible to steeper rent increases than neighbors without them.
Legal Aid maintains that Section 8 tenants are protected by the state rent cap law.
Vera said the perceived gray area has left voucher holders vulnerable as landlords emerge from the pandemic and refocus on their post-COVID bottom lines.
In Palmer’s case, the Housing Commission signed off on the rent increase.
Marshall said the Housing Commission has taken the position the state rent cap law doesn’t apply to Section 8 voucher holders, a call he said matches up with conclusions by the state’s legislative counsel and other housing agencies in the state.
The Housing Commission has determined that it won’t litigate that gray area. The agency is leaving courts to sort that out after tenants and landlords bring their disputes there.
“If a landlord and tenant disagree about the interpretation or application of state law, those matters would need to be adjudicated by the court that has jurisdiction over the issue,” Marshall wrote. “If the court determined a rent increase did not comply with the applicable law(s) in place, the appropriate documentation should be sent to SDHC, and SDHC can make adjustments to the SDHC rental assistance subsidy as necessary.”
Vera said many landlords also seemed to miss a January 2020 state civil code change requiring at least a 90-day notice for rent increases larger than 10 percent, a tweak he said landlords have often failed to properly apply. The previous requirement was just 60 days, the advance notice Palmer’s landlord gave him for an overall 90 percent rent hike.
For voucher holders, speaking up about perceived violations can come with risk. Fighting a rent increase could mean losing their home and their voucher.
“That section 8 voucher is so valuable that they are sometimes willing to accept an illegal rent increase –and maybe when they don’t have to – because they don’t want to jeopardize their voucher,” Vera said.
A similar dynamic exists for some affordable housing tenants.
Though their landlords commit to restricted rents, they aren’t covered by the state’s rent cap law.
Residents at the rent-restricted Mercado Apartments in Barrio Logan have for two years fought rent hikes.
Norma Aguirre, who has lived there for two decades, said she was notified just before the pandemic that her family’s $629 monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment would be increasing by about $200.
Other tenants reported receiving notice of even larger planned increases.
Aguirre and her landlord, nonprofit MAAC Project, disagree on the details of what happened next. Aguirre said she and other tenants struggling even more during the pandemic didn’t pay the increase after consulting the San Diego Tenants Union but MAAC CEO Arnulfo Manriquez said his group decided not to proceed with the rent hikes.
Aguirre, who works three jobs and whose husband was left unable to work following an injury, said she was recently hit with another notice. Her family now owes $690 a month, an amount Manriquez notes remains well below what HUD allows landlords to charge. He said the nonprofit needed to raise rents to maintain the property and properly serve residents.
“It’s not that we’re trying to keep up with these higher rents,” Manriquez said. “It’s just that we know we need to keep up with expenses.”
Aguirre said the rent increases – both the one that didn’t go forward and the one that’s now in effect – have been overwhelming for residents hit hard during the pandemic, including seniors and single mothers.
Yet Aguirre, 55, said she hasn’t considered moving. Her adult son has spent six months searching for a new home that’s workable for his family of three. He hasn’t found one.
Aguirre doesn’t expect to have better luck.
“I know I wouldn’t find anything that suits my income,” she said.