San Diego Mayoral Forum on Homelessness & Housing: Is the Answer ‘Build, Baby, Build’?

by on February 7, 2020 · 3 comments

in Election, Ocean Beach

By Doug Porter / Words&Deeds / February 5, 2020

“There is not a poll that you see, there’s not a discussion that you go to, where homelessness isn’t the primary concern of the electorate and to have a forum where you talk about homelessness and housing is really special.” — Voice of San Diego Editor Scott Lewis at Voices of Our City Mayoral Forum

While some folks chose to subject themselves to the painful experience of watching President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, a few hundred San Diegans gathered at the Fraternal Order of Eagles auditorium in Hillcrest to hear a discussion among Mayoral candidates about reality in America’s Finest City.

Organized by Voices of Our City Choir and Think Dignity, the event featured Assemblymember Todd Gloria, City Council persons Barbara Bry and Scott Sherman, along with activist Tasha Williamson. Homeless advocate Michael McConnell arranged for a Facebook livestream of the event. (Available for viewing here.)

Moderator Scott Lewis opted for a round table discussion rather than the question/answer/rebuttal format customarily seen at such gatherings. It worked well because the topic was focused, the participants were passionate but polite, and because Lewis had a good grasp of the subject matter.

The contrast between what was going on at the forum with events in Washington (I watched this morning: cough, gag) couldn’t have been greater.

Regardless of their viewpoints on the stage in Hillcrest, empathy for the plight of unhoused humans was a common denominator. In the Capitol Building, there was a 78 minute display of bravado packaged in ignorance, bolstered by distortions, and oblivious to reality.

First, a few words about local conditions. Let’s start with children, who can’t be easily lumped into the “mentally ill and substance abusers” description to the forefront of way too many assumptions:

In San Diego County, 40% of children under 12 are living in homes that are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

One of San Diego’s primary responses to homeless humans has been to throw them in jail.

  • Almost 40 percent of people in San Diego jails were homeless when arrested last year, marking a significant increase from the previous two years, a study released Thursday showed.

San Diego has a much bigger problem with housing (or lack thereof) than most people are aware of.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless says 27,850 people used homeless services countywide last year – more than triple the number counted in the annual homeless census.

Just about everybody (who isn’t getting funding from the City) says our present strategies for dealing with the homeless population are not getting the job done.

Here are some impressions from what I saw and heard last night.

There are a lot of code words used when people talk about homelessness.

Solving health issues isn’t going to get humans housed. The ghost of Barbara Bush could come back from the dead, wave a magic wand ending substance abuse and there would still be people on the streets. Big pharma could come with a miracle mental health drug and there will still be encampments.

Suggesting that homeless is some kind of personal choice, or anecdotes about people being incentivized by tough love is simply a waste of time.

Council person Scott Sherman used the same story about a homeless person named “Brian” being grateful for being forced to make a change by the SDPD as Mayor Kevin Faulconer used in his essay published by the conservative Hoover Institution entitled How San Diego Cleaned Up Its Act—And Got Real On Homelessness. 

Maybe they both met the same guy; maybe Brian had an epiphany that led him to stop mainlining meth; I don’t know. It certainly sounds suspicious to me. And while I would agree that the solutions to homelessness involve treating people as individuals, the tough love approach is simply a distraction.

The question of the evening centered on building more housing, namely how to get it done.

Todd Gloria advocated for building housing that “works for the working and middle class,” pointing out how it would now be impossible for his parents, who worked as a gardener and maid, to afford the home they bought a generation ago.

He spoke of updating community plans to provide certainty of process for builders and how doing so was transformative for Hillcrest. He decried the fact that most new housing construction was for the luxury end of the market, pointing out that only 33 permits for middle income housing have been issued in the past decade in San Diego.

Gloria’s solutions for building more income-appropriate housing included a middle-income trust fund, expediting the permit process, and utilizing public lands in a manner maximizing return to the community.

Lest we forget, Gloria promised to solve our homeless problem during his stint as acting-mayor. I think he knows better now.

Barbara Bry–Started out by saying she’s been told there are more than half a million homes in California that are permitted but not built, becauses costs are too high. She’s like to fix this by having the State refund development impact fees normally charged to builders to local governments.

McKinsey & Co. estimated in 2016 that California needed some 3.5 million more homes by the middle of next decade.

Bry’s also interested in proposing a massive state bond for first time home buyers to get down payment and closing cost assistance if they buy in an urban infill or transit priority area.

Of course, the amount of infill going on in coastal areas will always be limited by the height limitations voters put in place. So I’m guessing that’s Not in Barbara’s La Jolla Neighborhood.

Scott Sherman – Asserted that government policies are creating haves and have-nots and nothing in between. He pointed out a project in Grantville as an example of how middle income housing can be built by incentivizing instead of mandating.

Along with the expected claim about affordable housing being too expensive to build came the “side eye” about requiring contractors to pay prevailing wages.

I’m not sure how paying people less enables anything other than increased profitability. If Joe’s Building Company comes in with 10% lower costs but market demand remains high does anybody really think prices will fall?

I’m also curious about how this addresses the shortage (down 26% in the last decade) of construction workers without relying on undocumented immigrants or under-the-table pay that leaves taxpayers on the hook for injuries, ect.

And how are people making these less than prevailing wages supposed to pay for their housing? Teleport in from Arkansas, maybe?

Tasha Williamson— As the outsider and actual poor person in the group, her first recommendation was for the city and county to become landlords. The one-size-fits-all solutions she sees being used are a big part of the systemic problems the city faces.

“We’re just talking about build, build, build. But you also need to understand that some of my colleagues on this stage pressed the (yes) button when it was time to build those luxury homes.”

Williamson spoke with more passion than substance at times, a needed reminder that the issue of housing is very real and immediate for San Diegans.

The causes and cures for our housing shortage are not simple. And they are politically dangerous for elected officials. Many development fees exist to replace the revenues lost by local governments with –third rail alert– the passage of Proposition 13.

“Build, baby, build” can take decades to have an impact on the cost of housing at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, according to a UC Berkeley study. Right now, more than 40% of Californians are paying too much for housing to be able to exist without economic stress.

The research also found subsidized housing to be twice as effective as new private development at allowing low-income residents to weather rising rents and stay within a region.

As Tasha Williamson pointed out at the forum, many of the people sitting in the audience were just one missing paycheck away from joining the ranks of the city’s homeless.  

For More Information:

Barbara Bry – Website | Facebook | Twitter
Todd Gloria – Website | Facebook | Twitter
Scott Sherman – Website | Facebook | Twitter
Tasha Williamson – Website | Facebook| Twitter

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris February 7, 2020 at 2:50 pm

I’m almost at the point where I feel this is unfixable problem. Leaving California (while not in the cards yet) is looking to be an option sad to say.


Paul Webb February 7, 2020 at 3:52 pm

If the answer to the homeless and housing affordability problem is more housing, I have a quick and easy solution. Strictly enforce existing zoning restrictions and eliminate short term vacation rentals. That would add 16,000 units to the inventory. The city attorney says they are illegal, so what’s the problem?


sealintheSelkirks February 7, 2020 at 8:27 pm

Almost half of workers 18-64 are low wage workers but skyrocketing housing…and it isn’t ‘profitable’ to build housing for ‘those people.’ Meaning half the population of the country. So there’s only one way all this is going to continue heading, and that is circling the bowl. Midway is about money and power, who gets what and who controls the revenue streams.

How is somebody bringing home $18,000 a year supposed to exist? Who cares seems to be the operative word.



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