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Controversy Over Who Gets Access To Amenities Surrounds Downtown High-Rise Project

A Pinnacle International building under construction in San Diego's East Vill...

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Above: A Pinnacle International building under construction in San Diego's East Village, Feb. 6, 2020.

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The project is at the center of a debate over whether low-income affordable housing tenants can be excluded from luxury amenities in a complex shared with people paying full price.

Aired: February 20, 2020 | Transcript

A high-rise project in downtown San Diego is at the center of a debate over whether developers can exclude low-income affordable housing tenants from luxury amenities in a housing complex shared with people who are paying full price.

Pinnacle International is building a new development on 11th Avenue and A Street in San Diego's East Village that would include a tower with market-rate apartments and a connected building with 58 affordable apartments for low-income renters. Although the buildings would be connected, the low-income residents would enter their building through a separate entrance and would not be allowed onto the market-rate building's pool, spa, or rooftop deck.

The question is whether this separation amounts to segregation. Board members at the downtown planning agency Civic San Diego seem to think so — they rejected the plan, prompting Pinnacle to threaten to sue. Now the two sides have called a temporary truce and are trying to come to an agreement.

This is an issue facing cities nationwide. In New York, developers built residential projects with certain amenities such as gyms or kid playrooms restricted for only higher-paying tenants. They argued that the higher-paying tenants should get more amenities.

Community advocates decried such arrangements, calling the separate entrances for low-income tenants "poor doors," leading NYC to ban them for future developments.

This week, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) proposed a bill that would outlaw the practice in California.

"How does a single mom explain to her child that she is living in the same building as somebody from school but she can't utilize the pool or can't come through the front door," Gonzalez said. "That's sick."

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RELATED: San Diego’s Affordable Housing Program Inspires Statewide Bill

That argument hits home for Jackie Hernandez. She's in the federal government’s Section 8 housing assistance program and has dealt with substandard apartments.

"The roof started to cave in in the bathroom," she said of her last place. "I started to notice, there's a bubble."

Now, however, she's happy with her apartment in an older complex in San Diego’s University Heights neighborhood. She soundly rejected the idea of moving into a brand new building downtown if it meant she wasn't allowed in the attached building's entrance or into its pool.

"I don't think it's right, I don't think it's fair, we've got enough division in this world," she said. "And whether people believe it or not, we're all made in the image of God. We all have the same blood."

Armando Nunez, a leader with the San Diego Union Carpenters Local 619 and a vocal critic of the developer Pinnacle, also equated the plan to segregation.

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Jackie Hernandez walks into her apartment in San Diego's University Heights neighborhood, Feb. 6, 2020.

"If you're really helping out the community, then everyone's an equal citizen, everyone's a human being," he said. "So why would you classify different levels of citizens in San Diego?"

Rents in Pinnacle’s tower with market-rate apartments would likely be around $2,700 for two bedrooms. The building with affordable housing would be connected to the other towers via a bridge and have 60 units renting for about half the market rate.

Under current local rules, a developer can build more units than zoning regulations allow as long as the affordable building is within a mile of the market-rate apartments.

But the so-called poor-door approach — having a separate entrance and limited access to facilities — might be violating federal fair housing laws, said Sasha Harnden, a housing policy advocate with the Western Center on Law & Poverty.

"When a given action may have a disproportionate impact on a protected class, such as people of a certain race, elderly tenants, families with children, that can incur fair housing liability, that can be a prohibited practice even if it's not intentional discrimination," he said.

Pinnacle refused interview requests, citing potential lawsuits, but a lawyer for the developer sent a statement saying it should be commended for actually building affordable housing instead of paying a fee, as other developers do.

"If approved, this would provide much needed affordable housing in downtown San Diego much sooner than would otherwise be the case," said David Dick, Pinnacle's legal counsel.

Maya Rosas, a member of the YIMBY Democrats, which advocates for the housing movement called "Yes in My Backyard," said it's important for new housing projects to build affordable housing on-site.

"That's how we create integrated communities, that's how we desegregate communities, and that's how we let families thrive," she said.

That means, in theory, she would support a project like Pinnacle's, that would help low-income families access the schools, parks, restaurants and shops in downtown. But she has problems with this particular plan.

"We need to expect more from our developers to truly integrate our housing," she said.

Rosas wishes the city had rules that prohibited a project like this in the first place.

"It's so hard, we're in a tremendous housing crisis right now, people are struggling, and every single unit that's truly affordable is so needed," she said. "Which is why it's so unfortunate to be in this situation where this project is not going to be built or is seriously delayed."

The answer to what will happen to the project could come soon. The so-called "tolling agreement" signed by Civic San Diego and Pinnacle to allow them to negotiate without filing lawsuits expires March 6.

Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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