Santee City Councilmember Stephen Houlahan shows that grassroot efforts and community relationships outweigh political party endorsements and money
An American born abroad, the only home that Santee Councilmember Stephen Houlahan knows is Santee. He attended Sycamore Canyon Elementary School and was the first graduating class at West Hills High School in 1991. Attending Grossmont College, he then attended SDSU’s nursing program and has been a nurse for nearly 19 years. Now married with a young son, they bought a home near his parent’s house and his grandfather, who lives in the original house that he grew up in. Houlahan’s relationships with his high school friends, and his grass roots effort in Saving Mission Trails from the Quail Brush Power Plant proposal, gave him the relationships that he said helped his campaign tremendously. With no political backing and very little money, it was the support of his lifelong relationships made in Santee that brought him to his new position as a city councilmember. Always an activist in his community he said he wanted to give back more, so he ran for City Council.
“I had already been giving back with my work with Save Mission Trails, fighting the Quail Brush Power Plant, making sure that didn’t happen,” he said. “Went to both the Santee and San Diego city councils and they couldn’t do anything about it. I decided I was going to do something myself. And it wasn’t just me, it was all the volunteers that made the difference. A group of citizens can sometimes do more than a governmental body can.”
Houlahan said City Council has been a more homogeneous group over the last decade, if not longer. It started in what he called group think, so their ideas became more and more similar.
“I think that it was probably shocking to have someone with no endorsements from any political establishment, the person with the least amount of money by far, least budget, to come in and not only win, but win decisively. I believe it is a mandate of the people of their will. So their will is what my platform is,” he said. “Grassroots is everything. I got here because of the backing of my volunteers and the years of nurturing relationships throughout my life here in Santee. It’s all those friendships, relationships, coaching the kids, not in preparation for running for city council, it was coaching my son and also getting involved with our youngest citizens. That’s what it is all about. As a nurse, I reach out to the elderly. Many are shut in and forgotten. All of this is important and what makes a community a community. Sometimes the greatest victories come not in getting the star of your team better, it’s when you get the little guy, the smallest on the team and make him better. That’s wonderful bringing him up and bringing him up to the rest of them. That is gold.”
Infrastructure prior to increasing residential development and density is a top priority for Houlahan. He said people that live there are having a hard time just getting to work, but it is growing faster than the infrastructure can withstand.
“I understand to increase the tax base the City Council, they saw that bringing in residential development would increase the tax base,” he said. “But you also have to understand to increase that tax base, those are the working folks that are stuck in that traffic. They become more and more frustrated.”
So he started going down to City Council and talking about infrastructure. It never changed. Every time a new development was proposed, he begged for infrastructure, not to increase the density, keep zoning the way it was. It is not a matter of being completely anti-development and anti-growth, it is just that we people cannot get to work, he said. And 70 percent of the working folks in Santee drive over the SR 52. We can’t even get on the 52 from Mast Blvd.
He said the Castlerock development is not even in yet, and there is going to be 415 homes, so likely 1,000 cars dissecting the busiest arterial in Santee, which is Mast Blvd. Children, teenagers need to get to school. A lot of parents are taking their kids to school, many students drive and they cannot get there.
“Now that the City Council has woken up to the fact that the people feel really strongly, my presence is a reflection of that,” he said.
To fix the SR 51 is going to cost from $750 million to $1 billion and that is not going to come out of the 55,000 pockets of the residents of Santee. It is going to be a huge endeavor and right now we are in the queue for 2048, maybe, he said.
“The first thing we need to do is help our own citizens and give them options,” he said. “There is one park and ride in Santee and it is not even near the freeway and it is not being used. Right at Cuyamaca and Buena Vista is a parking lot right off the freeway and it is fenced in. I think we need to acquire that land and put a park and ride there. Something so people can make their own solutions. I we could get 100 or 200 people off the freeway carpooling, I think that people will self select to do these things. And down further, expanding the park and rides off the Highway 67 would help. And many come down SR 125 and the bottleneck is terrible.”
There is land across the from the landfill that belongs to San Diego, and it might be left as open space, but San Diego might decide to develop that land, he said. If they do that they need to think about the infrastructure, park and rides, van pools and identify where the people work.
“It’s going to be a challenge because there is so much going on with Caltrans and they are going to do what they do, so I would like to leverage some of those opportunities and see if we can get them to move us up in the queue so we are not looking at 2048,” he said. “With Castlerock part of Santee now, San Diego gave us a raw deal so let’s make it right and make some traffic solutions now. The County and County Board of Supervisors need to do the right thing. We were bullied into this. I don’t like bullies. I want to make it right. It’s not about name calling, it’s about making it right.”
He said the best way to mitigate traffic is for more job opportunities in Santee. City Council needs to follow the general plan and areas zoned for commercial, keep it that way. There are big lots adjacent to Gillespie Field and there is a lot of opportunity for growth there.
“We want to nurture Prospect Avenue, they did a very good job. We need to lure in the businesses and that way we can have jobs right in Santee. The RCP property is another one that can potentially be transformed from commercial to residential, which if it does causes more problems. Karl Strauss in moving into Santee, a theater and some property next to the prison that could be potential for job growth in Santee. We need to lure in, entice some sort of industries in. We have a lot of biotech and telecommunication industries in San Diego, why can’t we have a little piece of that,” he said.
He said Santee’s tax rate is low and Santee has a lot of great amenities. The City Council has done an excellent job at bringing in these amenities.
“They had a lot of vision, they’ve done a great job and these amenities can be a great pull for businesses in Santee,” he said. “When they do work around the San Diego River, we need to include the river. We have a homeless problem there and we can’t just shove them in the alleyways towards the river. There is a lot of potential if the river becomes part of the development. We need solutions for the homeless, but we can’t just shove them into the alleyway of the river if it is not included in the plans of businesses around that area.”
He said then there is the 800 pound gorilla to the north. All of the land north of Santee is owned by the HomeFed Corporation and been in the works to be developed. The people of Santee in a referendum vote did not want that land developed.
“With the traffic issues we have now and the potential for that to come back, I think this is going to be an interesting four years,” he said. “At this point I couldn’t support a large development to the north of Santee because it will use all of the infrastructure that is already there and dump thousands of vehicular trips on the current infrastructure. That would be a travesty. I think anyone on the council that tried to force that issue might face problems come election time. The people spoke strongly about their view on more development when I was elected.”
Houlahan said they are going to welcome our new citizens from the new developments, and the city is looking at least a 1,000 more with current residential projects.
He said maintaining the parks, having a great relationship with the school districts, helping the elderly and making Santee as safe and prosperous for all ages are reasons he ran for council and takes his position seriously, especially with the relationships that got him where he is today.
“I am a man of my word. If I say it, I do it. If I do it, I say it,” he said. “Anyone that knows me knows that. I believe I am a just person. I need to facilitate excellent communications with the citizens of Santee so I don’t stray from their will. I think it is very important for transparency in government. People need to know. When something like Castlerock happens and people say they didn’t even know, that is a failure on the government. I’m a man of many ideas and hopefully I’ll be a man of great action. All of this for the love of Santee. It is a great place and we still have that small town feeling.”