San Diego City Council falling short on goal to house the homeless
The San Diego City Council is shown at a meeting on Nov. 19, 2019. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

San Diego City Council falling short on goal to house the homeless

It’s been more than a year since the San Diego City Council voted to provide 140 new housing units for homeless and disabled residents in each council district by 2021, but little has been done to meet that commitment.

An inewsource review of San Diego Housing Commission records shows that since that council action in October 2018, these kinds of housing units have been built in only three of the nine council districts. Based on these numbers, it doesn’t appear city leaders will come close to meeting the goal by the Jan. 1, 2021, deadline.

As of the official January 2019 homeless count, San Diego had 5,082 homeless people — and more than half were unsheltered. Efforts by city leaders to find neighborhoods for housing, shelters and other services for the homeless continue to meet resistance.

And that isn’t the only ambitious goal the city has established to attack homelessness. The city’s Community Action Plan on Homelessness, released last month, calls for the construction of about 2,800 of these same units in the next decade.

“How can we tackle thousands and thousands of units when we can’t tackle 140?” said Michael McConnell, a San Diego homeless advocate and philanthropist. “Your commitment to the city’s new homeless plan doesn’t mean a whole lot when you haven’t even made progress against the resolution that you signed a year or so ago.”

These units, known as permanent supportive housing, are designed for people with disabilities and those who have experienced chronic homelessness. They are homes that come with onsite services, such as a case manager who assists residents with paying rent on time or provides help for those with chronic illnesses to manage their diet and medicine.

Council members were shown that these kinds of units are proven to end homelessness for those most difficult to serve, as well as save taxpayer money in the long run with fewer police and hospital interactions.

That’s why the City Council formally expressed its intent to support private construction of 140 permanent supportive housing units in each of the nine council districts by 2021. That commitment began as a non-binding resolution, which passed unanimously but doesn’t carry over to future council members.

It was viewed as a rallying cry to share the workload in addressing the city’s homeless crisis.

“I see the benefit of this,” Council President Georgette Gómez said during the council meeting last year. “It really is to send that statement that we’re committing and that we’re standing behind this decision.”

The goal of 140 units in each district wasn’t arbitrary. To help the city’s chronically homeless population, it would need 1,260 new permanent supportive housing units, said Councilman Chris Ward, who sponsored the resolution and represents downtown. Divide 1,260 new units by nine council districts and you get 140.

“It’s about all of us coming together to accomplish that goal,” Ward said at the meeting before the resolution passed.

For Ward, his district has already exceeded the housing goal and leads others in the city.

Here is where all nine council districts are in meeting the housing goal, including the three districts where the members were elected after the resolution passed:

  • Ward (District 3): 190 units built, 118 permitted and 361 in the pipeline.
  • Councilman Scott Sherman (District 7): 171 units built, 73 in the pipeline.
  • Gómez (District 9): 38 units built, seven in the pipeline.
  • Councilman Chris Cate (District 6): No units built, 52 in the pipeline.
  • Councilwoman Barbara Bry (District 1): No units built, none permitted and nothing in the pipeline.
  • Councilman Mark Kersey (District 5): No units built, none permitted and nothing in the pipeline.
  • Councilwoman Vivian Moreno (District 8): No units built, 50 permitted and 146 in the pipeline. (Took office in December 2018.)
  • Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell (District 2): No units built, 22 units in the pipeline. (Took office in December 2018.)
  • Councilwoman Monica Montgomery (District 4): No units built, eight units permitted. (Took office in December 2018.)

“Getting 140 units of housing built is, if you stay on task, not hard,” Ward said in a recent interview with inewsource, adding that it only takes two or three developments.

“I’ve got a lot of different issues that I touch as well … and you just have to remember to get back on the horse and stay on task,” he said.

The councilman added that homelessness exists in all nine council districts.

“We can’t have all of the solutions in one part of the city, when the beaches are impacted, when Mission Valley is impacted, when Hillcrest and Southeast San Diego and San Ysidro are impacted,” he said. “This is definitely a citywide challenge that requires citywide solutions.”

Paving the way for construction

No one expected council members to put on hardhats and develop these units themselves. It was about changing policies to allow for more development, finding land within each member’s district for this housing and working with developers, Ward said.

The city in recent years has updated community plans and zoning to promote all kinds of housing, and that has led to opportunities to build more of these units citywide, said Keely Halsey, the city’s chief of homelessness strategies. For example, the city allows multi-family units in certain areas where only single-family homes were allowed, and properties can have a business on the ground floor with housing above, she said. The city also changed the permitting process to remove barriers for developers wanting to build supportive housing units.

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With all of those changes, city officials hope to increase the capacity for more housing units — of any kind — by about 100,000 in the next couple years, Halsey said.

In addition, the city also helps provide financing. A portion of the fees collected from various development projects create a fund that the city pairs with Housing Commission funds, which is then offered to developers to build, Halsey said.

Sherman found success in his district, which includes Mission Valley, because the zoning was changed around mass transit to allow for more of these units without expensive government reviews. This was especially the case, he said, with housing developments in the Grantville area.

“Zoning and incentives always seem to get the job done a lot quicker than mandates and fees,” Sherman said.

Citywide challenge requires a citywide solution

City officials hope leveraging city-owned property will spur construction of supportive housing for the disabled and homeless.

Three weeks after the council committed to adding 140 of these units to each district, Mayor Kevin Faulconer asked each council member to recommend two city-owned locations for potential development. Of those who supported the 2018 resolution, Kersey is the only one who never responded. His term ends in December 2020. Through his chief of staff, he declined to be interviewed for this story.

Faulconer’s office vetted each council member’s proposal, a spokeswoman said, but she could not provide written documentation. Faulconer included one of Ward’s recommendations — 925 W. Washington St. — with seven other properties the mayor intends to leverage for development of permanent supportive housing.

The other recommendations were deemed unsuitable to develop supportive housing, according to the mayor’s spokeswoman and related memos.

Bry recommended one location on Sorrento Valley Road. Her office left “no stone unturned” looking for city properties suitable for supportive housing, said Bry’s chief of staff, adding they just don’t exist in the district, which includes University City, La Jolla and Carmel Valley.

San Diego City Council members Barbara Bry, Jennifer Campbell and Chris Ward are shown at a council meeting on Nov. 19, 2019. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“(Developers) can only build these units if the land is free,” Bry told inewsource. Land in her district comes with high costs and high taxes, she said.

Cate’s spokeswoman said he responded to the memo, directing the mayor to a homelessness action plan the councilman had released a couple of months before the resolution passed. It included possible locations for supportive housing development.

In a statement to inewsource, Cate mentioned the addition of a safe parking lot, which allows those who sleep in their vehicles to stay there overnight. It now operates in his district at full capacity, he said. Plans also are underway to build 52 permanent supportive housing units in the district.

“I believe my solutions will effectively and expeditiously get families and individuals off the street, placed in safe and secure locations, and connected to services that meet their specific needs,” Cate said.

Gómez’s chief of policy pointed to the success her district has had with affordable housing, which is different than permanent supportive housing. Next year, three projects will break ground in her district, creating 263 new units ― including seven that are anticipated to be permanent supportive housing, her policy chief said.

Sherman thinks every council member needs to take responsibility for getting permanent supportive housing built.

“That’s kind of why I was in support of this resolution in the first place,” Sherman said. “To put people on record and to say this is a citywide problem, and people across the city have to take their fair share.”

Sherman said he hopes his council colleagues keep their commitment to encourage this kind of housing to be built in their own district.

But by this time next year, the goal set in the October 2018 resolution will be mostly worthless. Cate will be the only remaining member who made the housing commitment.

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About Cody Dulaney:

Cody Dulaney
Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email codydulaney [at] inewsource [dot] org.