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KPBS Commentaries

Hopeless in Santee

In Santee, Lanny and his girlfriend are loading their U-Haul and moving to Arizona.

I knew his father, a prosperous lawyer. Lanny grew up in the family home on Point Loma and went to San Diego State. But now he says: "San Diego is hopeless. With my pay and hers, my girlfriend and I can live in a box in Santee. I commute 40 miles to work. We're out of here.?

How should we feel about San Diego reaching the Olympics of unaffordable housing, forcing our sons and daughters out of their home town? Our home prices are among the highest in America. Some in real estate and media brag about this as though it were a Padres winning streak. Others, with conscience and foresight, raise distress flags.

Jobs and opportunities decline when affordable housing disappears. But isn't a home a market-driven free enterprise? Yes, and real estate developers have famously had their way with us. Our predicament grows out of our greed...and careless planning. We have used up our future in sprawling residential suburbs. Buildable land is almost gone. Now we will build up, not out.

At the other end of this crisis is an orgy of opulence. The word is out among moneyed people, around the world, that San Diego is a place to buy a second home. In North County, trophy estates become holiday pads for trophy wives. The covenant area of Rancho Santa Fe is built out. Only two or three beachfront homesites remain in La Jolla. Buyers scrape million-dollar homes to build larger homes.

There was a wonderful wake the other day in Potters Canyon Park for Willis Allen, who died at 92. A La Jolla real estate company has borne the Allen name for generations. As an agent, Allen sold and resold some La Jolla estates three or four times. Even his eyes bulged as he reported yet another multimillion-dollar home sale.

But IN OUR REAL WORLD, young home-buyers commute from Riverside County to jobs in South Bay. Apartment rents are out of reach for median wage earners.

Into this chaos comes Betsy Morris of the City Housing Agency. She parcels out housing subsidized by government funds, mostly federal. As I ride around the city with Betsy to see public housing, she challenges me to tell which homes are subsidized. I lose each bet. Public housing is no longer some huge tenement. It's scattered. For those living inside, each is a halfway house. Under the tutelage of Betsy's staff, many grow able to buy their first home.

Yet the gap between San Diego's rich and its needy stretches steadily wider. The basic matter of a place to live can price a city out of bounds.

Betsy can't handle it all by herself.