City Council District 3 Candidates Differ In Approaches To Homelessness
Whoever wins the race for San Diego City Council District 3 will represent some of the city’s most urban neighborhoods. The district includes downtown, Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, Mission Hills, North Park and Normal Heights, and is the epicenter of the local homelessness crisis.
Four Democrats are vying to replace City Councilman Chris Ward, who is leaving his seat to run for the state Assembly. All of them list homelessness as a top priority, but have differences in how they would approach the issue.
Adrian Kwiatkowski is a local lobbyist who has worked on issues ranging from the seals populating La Jolla Cove to the City Charter reform that established San Diego’s strong mayor form of government. He was hired in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to help get approval for the Aspire Center, a residential treatment facility in Old Town for veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
The facility was controversial at the time and Kwiatkowski said its ultimate approval shows how he’s able to build coalitions.
"We had to work with the neighbors, work with the community, work with the school across the street and come to some sort of consensus on how we could move this project forward," he said.
On homelessness, Kwiatkowski said he supports the city cracking down on people sleeping on sidewalks. He would ask the City Attorney's Office for options on how to strengthen laws that target vagrancy and other issues related to people living on the streets.
"When you approach a little bit of tough love, there are going to be people that criticize you," he said. "But I will tell you the voters want to see some sort of positive action. They are tired of the talk, and the constant issue just getting worse and worse."
Toni Duran, who works as a community representative for Sen. Toni Atkins, met KPBS at the old Mission Hills Library. The site has been vacant since the city replaced it last year.
Duran is advocating for a proposal by the mayor's office to make the city-owned property available for permanent supportive housing, which provides people with health and counseling services along with a roof over their head. It is considered the most effective way to end chronic homelessness.
"Granted it would only help 28 people," Duran said of the site's relatively small size. "But helping 28 people get off the street, get housing, get support services that they need so they can thrive — that's important. This is what we need to be doing."
Duran acknowledged many Mission Hills residents are wary of the plan and said she would make sure their concerns are heard by city officials.
"I’m asking their opinions, I’m asking what do you like, what don’t you like, what are you afraid of," she said. "What would help you get there so we can do this important work?"
On homelessness, Duran said she sees last year's vote by the City Council to ban people living in cars as the wrong approach.
"It's not illegal to be homeless," she said. "We cannot be telling people, 'If this is your only means of housing, if this is your only way of living, sorry. We're going to ticket you, we're going to tow you, we're going to make sure that we're putting up barriers for you.' That's not right."
Chris Olsen has worked for the city's Independent Budget Analyst's Office for six years, focusing on public safety (he briefly transferred to the city's Risk Management department before going on leave last November to focus on his campaign). He is also a lecturer at SDSU, teaching fiscal policy.
Olsen asked to be interviewed in front of Hotel Z, a boutique hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter. The building used to be a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel, a low-quality but cheap form of housing that is often people's last stop before homelessness. Olsen said the city is missing opportunities to preserve this form of affordable housing.
"Many other cities, in times of a lot of development pressure, will turn to a moratorium or an interim control ordinance to kind of take a breather and put a pause on certain conversions while we come up with a strategy that will work best for all stakeholders," he said.
Olsen is the only candidate to unambiguously support Mayor Kevin Faulconer's proposal for protected bike lanes on 30th Street in North Park — though he said the city did a poor job of reaching out to residents to get their feedback.
He is also endorsed by the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County, a Democratic club that advocates for more home building. Olsen said he sees more density and mixed-use development in District 3 as an opportunity to revitalize neighborhoods and eliminate blight.
"If you could just add a certain level of new residents to move into (the district), the local economy would be more vibrant and it would really add to the character of the neighborhood," he said.
Stephen Whitburn has won some coveted endorsements in the race — those of the San Diego Democrats for Equality and the San Diego County Democratic Party. The latter allows the party to spend money on Whitburn's behalf via mailers to registered Democrats.
Whitburn, who works as a director of community development for the American Cancer Society, said improving community outreach is a top priority. He said neighborhoods want to do their part to solve homelessness, but deserve a say in how to address it.
"That’s what frustrates people in our neighborhoods, is that people make decisions before consulting with them," he said. "I’m not going to do that. I'm going to consult first, and then we'll come up with a solution."
On housing, Whitburn agreed District 3 has room to grow. But he said residents and businesses should have influence over the details.
"I think we need to increase density throughout the urban core," he said. "I do feel it's also really important to engage our neighborhoods and listen to what our communities have to say about the best way of doing that."
Unlike his opponents, this is not Whitburn’s first run for office. He lost to Todd Gloria, a state assemblyman and current mayoral candidate, for this same council seat in 2008. He also ran unsuccessfully for a county supervisor seat in 2010.
He attracted attention in 2016 because of a public battle with his former employer, San Diego LGBT Pride. After the organization abruptly fired him, he and a group of supporters reserved space in Balboa Park to hold a separate pride event around the same time the original was planned.
City officials were caught between the two pride groups, but Whitburn's organization ultimately dissolved. Then in 2018 he sued San Diego LGBT Pride for wrongful termination, alleging harassment, retaliation and age discrimination. The two sides settled last year, a few months after Whitburn entered the race.
Whitburn said he cannot say much about the settlement, but that he was proud of his time leading the organization.
"A lot of the people who I served with at San Diego Pride are supporting me for this City Council race," he said. "I'm a proud supporter of San Diego Pride and I look forward to supporting the organization and the event as a council member."