East County needs to have more conversations about housing

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Affordable housing is an issue, not just in East County, but in all of San Diego.

However, given East County’s especially large homeless population and the makeup of its neighborhoods, which are either very old or very isolated, affordable housing becomes a pressing question for this region on a number of levels.

Last week, La Mesa Conversations hosted a public meeting about the housing situation to involve the concerns, questions and opinions of the community.

Affordable housing is an issue, not just in East County, but in all of San Diego.

However, given East County’s especially large homeless population and the makeup of its neighborhoods, which are either very old or very isolated, affordable housing becomes a pressing question for this region on a number of levels.

Last week, La Mesa Conversations hosted a public meeting about the housing situation to involve the concerns, questions and opinions of the community.

The panel was comprised of city councilmember Kristine Alessio, policy director for the San Diego Housing Federation Laura Nunn, and Rafael Perez from the Pacific Southwest Association of Realtors. For and an hour and a half, they fielded questions and talked about options for East County.

One thing became clear during the course of the evening: although everyone agrees that there is definitely a problem, very little common ground exists in finding a workable solution to it.

The problem is that there are a large number — more than needed — of “luxury houses” in San Diego, and a similar percentage of the most affordable housing — in this case, read “cheap” — which create an hourglass ratio of available homes. The thin middle of that hourglass represents housing available for average wage-earners. But because there are not enough units on the market for average wage-earners, they buy the next most affordable homes. But in doing so, they take homes could be purchased by individuals in that lowest income bracket.

The shuffle downward eventually kicks a certain percentage out of permanent residency options entirely. They make up a portion of East County’s homeless population.

Yes, the homeless are not only people with serious mental illness or drug addictions. They are people — families, even — who simply cannot afford monthly rent or HOA fees or who were priced out of living spaces they were renting after the owner did renovations. They live out of their cars or make the circuit of friends who will let them crash on couches and spare bedrooms.

These are the people who would benefit, hypothetically, from apartment buildings put up next to trolley stops or legislation that would encourage guest flats be used to house homeless persons.

Ah, the possible solutions. See, this is where the community divides.

Many residents moved to East County to get out of the suburbs, away from the inner city, to find seclusion and a sense of space. Apartment buildings would bring more cars, more cramped streets, more crowded roadways, more noise, more crime.

Others are skeptical that housing plans will work, that public transit will be used to its greatest efficiency, building more units will actually help get people off the streets.

But rising homelessness must be addressed. Thus enters a faction of the community willing to let their neighborhoods change for the sake of the welfare of those who would otherwise not be able to afford shelter.

Now the question poised is: How?

Where do we build? How much do we build? What do we build and who gets to build it?

East County has space, but much of it lacks the infrastructure for more neighborhoods and more still are in areas especially susceptible to wildfires.

Beyond this, years of processing approvals are required before development can even begin. Fish and land protections, approvals from indian reservations and enormous fees from local government are all tremendous roadblocks in beginning housing projects. Local government can do a lot to streamline this process, especially where their own fees are concerned.

But even if developers can get past all these hurdles, there is no guarantee that their final product will be what San Diegans need.

There are investors willing to dump money into developing units in San Diego, but what kind? Not budget housing, not housing that will fill out the middle of that hourglass. Most developers build on the upper end of the housing scale. And why not? The smartest business move is to invest in the a project with the greatest potential of returns.

Unfortunately, that still leaves a critical need in our community unfulfilled.

Alright, so the houses are built, the walls are put up and the doors are open to welcome buyers, what promise is there that buyers will indeed come? HOA fees discourage many from becoming homeowners and rent control conversations are making current owners fearful for similar reasons.

People do not like being told how to use their money.

And that is what it boils down to, is it not?

Money. The green buck determines who gets to buy land, build on land, sell or rent it out. Some people will always be community-minded, others will only be focused on their own bottom line. This is where our local and state governments are often asked to step in — or take it upon themselves to do so.

Government’s role is to create policies that protect the general public from greed, corruption and unequitable treatment. And, unfortunately, our leaders in government do not always get it right either.

But if our communities policed themselves, if homeowners were fair with their renters, if housing developers took an interest in the makeup of the communities in which they built, if individuals shouldered more responsibility for our community as a whole, the role of government would necessarily become smaller.

It is difficult to use legislation to enforce ethics. Ethics are the responsibility of the individual.

Of course, slapping “ethics” over the issue does not solve the housing problem either. But, as with everything, it is a good place to start, both individually and in government and business.

As a community, it behooves East County to be in communication with their leaders in local government to see what exactly is being done about these issues, keeping those in office accountable to the will of the people by being ever-present.

Any grants awarded to developers in East County should be for homes in the middle-income bracket. Thought should be given toward reassessing the purpose and necessity of HOA’s. The development approval process should be streamlined by our local government, not bottle-necked in bureaucracy.

And the community needs to come together more often, as they did last week during the La Mesa Conversations meeting, to discuss the needs of our neighborhoods, to seek to understand the position of our friends, and to find common ground with which to begin building real solutions.

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