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Finding Affordable Housing In San Diego May Get Tougher

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Aired 1/24/11

Finding somewhere affordable to live in San Diego is not easy. For low-income earners it is particularly hard. But local funding for more affordable housing is one of the victims of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to cut the state's budget deficit.

Copper Creek affordable housing unit in San Marcos

Above: Copper Creek affordable housing unit in San Marcos

Trina Ybarra is a 29-year-old single mom. She lucked out in finding an affordable apartment in downtown San Diego 18 months after applying for one. Ybarra landed a brand new unit in Parkside Apartments.

"I was paying about $900 a month for this really, really tiny apartment for me and both my children," recalled Ybarra. "Now I pay only $28 more for a three bedroom. You know, it’s made a huge difference. It’s definitely a blessing.”

Ybarra earns $14 an hour as an assistant manager at a senior center in downtown San Diego. She is at the low end of the income spectrum.

But Susan Tinsky, head of the San Diego Housing Federation, says affordable housing programs work for people with moderate incomes too.

"You know, there’s very severe need in every segment of the population," said Tinsky.

Tinsky said the news that the governor plans to eliminate redevelopment agencies is bad news for the affordable housing market. That’s because redevelopment agencies have to spend at least 20 percent of their funding on affordable housing.

"It really is one of the only sources of local funding for affordable housing," said Tinsky.

Trinsky said funding for affordable housing is like a layer cake - it comes from lots of different sources: state bonds, federal community block grants, and so on. But redevelopment dollars come from local property taxes which are paid by residents like you or me. Those local tax dollars are key because they’re used as matching funds to attract state and federal grants.

Attorney Cathy Rodman is an advocate for affordable housing. But she’s less concerned that eliminating redevelopment agencies will wipe out a major source of funding for affordable housing.

"It would be a blow if it were true," said Rodman.

According to Rodman, some redevelopment agencies do a good job with affordable housing, but too often a lot of money gets spent on administration with very few housing units to show for it.

This is the problem with the state law, according to Marianne O'Malley, director of general government for the California Legislative Analyst’s office in Sacramento.

"The obligation on redevelopment is to spend 20 percent of their funds on housing," said O'Malley. "It’s not necessarily to create a great deal of housing."

There’s a debate over this going on now in the San Diego region. At a recent breakfast meeting for planners and business people, Frank Alessi, CEO of San Diego’s Centre City Development Corporation, said it generated 3,500 affordable housing units.

"That’s like producing 10 units a month for the last 35 years, every single month," said Alessi.

Attorney Cathy Rodman isn’t swayed. She said that’s based on a false premise.

"They’ll point to the William Penn Hotel as adding 18 or 19 units. They don’t talk about the fact that it used to be a 60-unit SRO hotel. They don’t talk about what’s demolished, what’s converted...and so it’s not really a fair description of the affordable picture," said Rodman.

Rodman isn’t shedding any tears over eliminating redevelopment agencies. She does worry about what other money will be found for affordable housing. That’s the big question. The governor has proposed making it easier to raise local taxes, if local people chose to vote for it. But in this economy that could be a pipe dream.

Susan Tinsky of the Housing Federation says the region currently has about 45,000 units of affordable housing, many developed by a cadre of home-grown developers. She said most developers would not build affordable housing unless they are subsidized by local property tax dollars.

"So I think we would lose quite a few of them," said Tinsky. "This is problematic because obviously the demand for affordable housing is so high in San Diego. It really takes a really long time to build up an industry of this type in San Diego. So I think if this goes away, I think we would be in a very bad place for a very long time, even after, if and when funding did come back."

Marianne O’Malley in Sacramento said arguing over whether redevelopment agencies are doing a good job is not the point.

"It’s not a question of could a redevelopment agency do good things with this funding?" said O'Malley. "It’ s a debate over the allocation of one of the major revenue sources in California - the property tax - and the question is where should those funds go."

Building affordable housing could be forced to compete with things like schools, social services and city services. And it’s hard to know which services are the most necessary to San Diego’s quality of life.

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