Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Quality of Life

San Diego County expands rental subsidy program for older adults

When Fidel Sanchez retired six years ago after decades as a machinist, he felt ready to live within his means.

“When I retired, my retirement income was enough to live — not rich, but well, more or less,” he said in Spanish. “But the pandemic started, and everything started to go up.”

Sanchez lives in a one-bedroom apartment in University City. He said he started out paying $1,700 a month for rent there in 2019. At the time, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego was $1,950. Five years later, he’s spending $2,700 a month on rent, plus about $100 on utilities. This month’s median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,350, according to the real estate website Zumper.


He’s considered moving, but he said there aren’t many better options.

“I like this place because it’s very peaceful,” he said. “I’ve gone to other places, like Chula Vista, and the rent is actually the same as this area. So why would I move?”

Sanchez is one of 222 participants in San Diego County’s shallow rental subsidy pilot program, meant to help older adults stay in their homes and connect to other services.

Before getting the subsidy, Sanchez said he had to ask his daughter for help paying rent. This spring, the county’s program started sending $500 directly to his landlord each month.

“There’s not as much pressure now that I have the $500,” he said. “Before, I would have to go look for the money.”


The county launched the rental subsidy pilot program in early 2023. It’s now accepting applications for 160 more households. Participants must be at least 55 years old, pay more than half of their income on housing costs and have a household income at or below 50% of the area median income.

In San Diego County, more than one-third of renters over 65 spend the majority of their income on rent.

Barbara Jiménez, the Community Operations Officer for the county’s Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities, said Social Security and pension benefits aren’t enough to cover rising costs.

“The cost of housing continues to soar, and many of our seniors, older adults, are really living on low and fixed incomes,” she said. “We found they’re really being forced to choose between paying rent, eating, buying medication. And the data tells us that older adults are the fastest growing age group of people that are experiencing homelessness in San Diego.”

Nearly half of unhoused older adults surveyed for this year’s Point-in-Time Count were homeless for the first time.

Jiménez said homelessness can happen for lots of reasons. Losing a spouse might mean a sudden loss of income. An unexpected medical event might bring a hefty bill with it.

“They were with partners or with spouses, they were working, and then there’s just some kind of an event or something that occurs,” she said.

Researchers with the University of California San Francisco surveyed thousands of homeless adults in the state in 2021 and 2022. Dr. Margot Kushel, with the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations, said they heard that a little bit of financial help could have kept people in their homes.

“Had they gotten $300 to $500 a month, had they gotten a one-time payment of $5,000 to $10,000, or had they gotten something like a housing choice voucher, which paid the difference between 30% of their income and what their rent cost, it would have stabilized things and then allowed them to not have the downward spiral,” she said.

That intervention helps both the recipients and the local governments that pay for social services, Kushel said.

“If they can get into shelter, that’s really costly. A lot of them don’t get to shelter, but they’re cycling in and out of our emergency departments, in our hospitals. They might need to go to a nursing home when they otherwise could have avoided it,” she said. “The truth of the matter is that if we don't spend these small amounts of money we’re spending it on the back end but for really bad outcomes.”

Kushel points to Santa Clara County — which provides one-time emergency financial assistance to people at risk of losing their homes — as an example. Researchers with the University of Notre Dame studied the program and found that for every $1 spent on emergency financial assistance, at least $2.47 was saved.

Along with the rental subsidy program, San Diego County is working on adding more affordable housing units. A new 126-unit senior community in Linda Vista opened last month. It’s the first of 11 affordable housing communities planned for county excess land.

Overall, the county is short more than 134,500 homes for low-income renters, according to the San Diego Housing Federation and the California Housing Partnership.

Sanchez is getting other types of assistance to help pay for food and cell phone bills. He and his wife have been on the waiting list for housing choice vouchers — also known as Section 8 — for four years.

“But they haven’t called,” he said. “They say the wait time for Section 8 to open is eight to 10 years.”

In the meantime, the subsidy program is helping him stay in his apartment. County staff will connect him and other participants with services they qualify for during the 18-month program. But he says when it ends, he’s not sure what will happen next.

If you think you qualify for the county’s pilot program, you can fill out an application online, email or call 619-780-3684.