Council President Pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe, Councilmembers Marni Von Wilpert and Kent Lee in City Council Chambers in downtown on June 13, 2023.
Council President Pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe, Councilmembers Marni Von Wilpert and Kent Lee in City Council Chambers in downtown on June 13, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

If nothing else was accomplished in the more than 10-hour discussion Tuesday about whether to prohibit homeless residents from camping on public land, at least the San Diego City Council had what seems like an unprecedented conversation about the crisis.

The City Council has discussed homelessness thousands of times. But mostly those conversations concerned individual projects or spending. Even when the Council debated comprehensive plans, it was almost like everyone knew they’d just get shelved.

This was different. I can’t remember any time the topic has come up where the full breadth of the crisis was explored this deeply and where the city’s shortcomings were acknowledged so completely.

“Ironically, perhaps, this is the most robust conversation on the most pressing issue facing our city that we’ve had in a very long time if ever,” said Councilman Joe LaCava when it was his turn to speak Tuesday.

He and four other colleagues made up the five votes necessary to pass the new ordinance, which more specifically threatens homeless residents with misdemeanor prosecution if they camp within two blocks of schools, riverbanks and shelters at any time or anywhere else on public land if there is shelter available. They get a couple warnings and opportunities to change their mind before they can be booked into jail.

For many months now, I have been calling for the city to address the problem like the true emergency that it is – not unlike a natural disaster, an earthquake or a tsunami. This wasn’t quite that but it does seem like the first time the mayor and City Council tried to match the energy and anxiety around the crisis with a major proposal that necessarily required everyone to discuss almost every aspect of the problem.

In the process, city leaders issued a litany of promises about what they were going to do to both provide options for people and clean up neighborhoods. And that too is nice for people like us to have on the record.

Here are some other things I took away:

Not great optics: It simply does not look very good for the City Council to split 5-4 on a vote of this significance. This is the biggest pivot in the city’s approach to dealing with homelessness and it carries with it tremendous risk. Now, almost half the Council is on the record believing it is a mistake and likely to fail or make things worse.

Expectations are high: One of the most striking things about the discussion was how many issues were presented that the new ordinance would address. From crime and drug use to the hundreds of deaths occurring on the streets, banning encampments held the promise of addressing it all.

In her prepared statement released after the vote, Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell wrote this: “This is a win-win ordinance because our unsheltered neighbors camping on unsafe sidewalks and in unhealthy conditions will be able to live in clean and safe sleeping camping areas with 24-hour security, meals, showers, restrooms, and social services; all while being helped to find permanent housing. Meanwhile, families walking through neighborhoods will no longer have to navigate through items blocking sidewalks and health hazards, such as human waste.”

That’s quite a promise that the ordinance means these nuisances and worse will no longer be affecting San Diegans quality of life.

Councilman Kent Lee, who opposed the ordinance, had a different take: “Fundamentally this ordinance makes a promise to the public that we will never be able to deliver. Supporters may be believing that banning encampments means that there will no longer be encampments. I believe that without an abundance of available shelter, that simply won’t happen. In fact, we’ll simply move encampments around and create a more chaotic and volatile situation for every person, business and neighborhood involved.”

Council President Sean Elo Rivera has taken to calling the new law the “anti-homeless ordinance.” He said it sets unrealistic expectations: “I simply do not believe there is sufficient evidence this anti-homelessness ordinance will deliver in the way people hope,” he wrote in a letter to constituents explaining his vote.

That’s the risk: What happens if nothing is better in three months or six months or more?

Still a disconnect: The mayor has taken the position that many of the unhoused people living in encampments are not motivated to seek shelter and this will convince them to move into one. However, speaker after speaker, including some who worked for the mayor, made the point repeatedly that there are not enough spots for even the people who seek shelter now.

Even if he’s correct that more people will be motivated to seek the shelter the city offers, doesn’t that mean that more people will not be accommodated?

This has also amusingly become the conservative pushback on the ordinance. Former Mayor Kevin Faulconer attacked the plan as offering inadequate shelter.

Even Escondido Mayor Dane White weighed in “How are these encampment bans enforceable without shelter beds?”

The safe sleeping spots are key: In his interview with me, the mayor said the new safe camping site at 20th and B Street will be open within two weeks. Police officials at the meeting said that entire “pods” of camping families will be able to move together to the new safe camping spots.

Another lot near the Navy hospital in Balboa Park is planned to accommodate hundreds more. The number of spots will still not come close to matching the number of unsheltered homeless within the city of San Diego. But these areas will provide the best chance for the city to show major improvements in visible street homelessness. The barriers to entry will be relatively low. They are being told they can go with friends, family, pets and stuff.

But what happens when they’re full?

And even if they’re less visible, they’re still homeless.

Related: At the Housing Federation’s annual Ruby Awards, Council President Sean Elo Rivera presented the final awards and expressed support for the Federation’s plan to push a ballot initiative that would put a real estate transfer tax on the ballot for properties worth more than $1.5 million.

Hahn’s Last Shows

Ernie Hahn has been helping run the Sports Arena since 1991 when he was an event coordinator. Every few years, he has had to fight to stay involved.

In 1992, a group of investors joined him as Arena Group 2000 and in 2008, they brought on a huge new partner, AEG, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, with its vast portfolio of sports teams and event promotion. Now that’s part of the even bigger ASM Global family. Hahn and other local investors remain minor partners in the management of the old San Diego arena.

Throughout all the changes, Hahn has clung to a role and become one of the biggest names in local concert promotion. But his long run at what’s now called the Pechanga Arena looks like it’s coming to an end.

The city informed ASM Global and the Arena Group 2000 that it was done negotiating with them on a short-term extension of their lease of the Sports Arena. The current lease expires a year from July. The city is planning to demolish the nearly 56-year-old arena to make way for a vast new development on almost 50-acres of land the city owns at the site.

It is now negotiating instead with Midway Rising and its partners Legends, the large event and sports business.

Bottom line: Operating the arena until that happens is still a lucrative business. Over the last year, the venue has hosted 40 shows. Blink 182 is coming for two nights next week. Bruce Springsteen and Depeche Mode will be there in December.

Hahn believes these top shows are all the result of his and his partners decades of investment and work building the arena up as a top destination. He said they put more than $40 million into the arena over three decades.

“The city should be honoring and working with the group that has been delivering for the arena since 2001. Why would the City be negotiating our lease after 32 years with this group, when there is no deal solidified on the development or arena at this point and you’re jeopardizing future events, jobs of loyal employees and the future of tenants that are currently in the building?” Hahn told the Politics Report.

The city has no formal development plan with Midway Rising yet. It will take years for them to make a deal on exactly what the developers will build on the land and what the city will get out of it. City officials, though, led by Penny Maus, the director of Real Estate and Airport Management, decided it was best to proceed with the new guys.

More: This week, Maus and the Midway Rising partnership announced that billionaire Stan Kroenke had become the primary investor in that project and would now take over 90 percent of the equity in the development.

Hahn said he’s fine giving way to Kroenke. Later. But he had some snark for that too:

“I hope that a deal with Stan Kroenke comes together for the benefit of San Diego for a new NBA or NHL capable arena. That would be a win for all. Building a 16,000-seat arena is a waste of resources and money as it’s not able to host NBA or NHL and you won’t do many more events than we are doing now maximizing this building with our local and international relationships,” Hahn said.

City’s take: “The City considered its options for operations for the remainder of the Pechanga Arena’s time standing and decided an agreement with Midway Rising made the most sense. The City and public will benefit from the long-term success of the arena, and having the long-term operators take over Pechanga Arena now provides advantages on that front – allowing long-term planning and booking of the new venue, for instance,” wrote the mayor’s director of communications, Rachel Laing.

If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, send them to

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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  1. Regarding the Sports Arena and Ernie Hahn’s management: The Sports Arena is in really bad condition, with broken down seats, ceiling tiles falling down, etc. Attending an event means paying a $15 parking fee and then sky high prices for food and drink. At this point, there’s not much point in fixing it up, but it’s awfully hard to square Mr. Hahn’s claims of being a great facility manager with the realities. It seems as if he was just doing the bare minimum of maintenance at every turn and charging the absolute maximum he could get away with.

  2. “‘Building a 16,000-seat arena is a waste of resources and money as it’s not able to host NBA or NHL and you won’t do many more events than we are doing now maximizing this building with our local and
    international relationships,’ Hahn said.”

    that’s not “snark,” it’s just the truth.

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