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

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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.

Speaker 1: 00:00 When developers build high rises that include both market rate and affordable housing for low income families, do they have an obligation to provide the same amenities to both groups? KPBS reporter Claire triglycerides says a high rise project in downtown San Diego has brought that question to the public square.

Speaker 2: 00:18 Jackie Hernandez thinks back on some of the places she's lived and cringes. One place is specially stands out

Speaker 3: 00:26 and the roof started to cave in in the bathroom and I started to notice there's a bubble

Speaker 2: 00:30 now she uses section eight housing vouchers to help pay for a place in an older complex in San Diego's university Heights neighborhood. There are some repairs that could be done. These railings that it got fixed still, she's happy with it, but what if she had the chance to move into an affordable apartment downtown in a brand new building, but there would be a catch. She and the other low income renters would be in a separate building with a separate entrance.

Speaker 3: 00:59 Honestly, I don't think it's right. I don't think it's fair. We've got enough division here in this world. So this is a pinnacle in internationals job site. This is their current project.

Speaker 2: 01:09 Armando nuñez stands in front of one of the towers. The developer pinnacle international is currently building downtown. He's with the local carpenters union and is a big critic of the projects. Cynical is building three towers with market rate apartments, which would probably rent for around $2,700 for two bedrooms. And then it would put 60 affordable housing units in a small building close by. Those would rent for about half the normal rate. The affordable housing would connect to one of those towers, but the lower income renters couldn't use it's pool, spa or rooftop deck. And argument in support of this arrangement is that by paying more, you get access to more amenities, but nuñez equates that to segregation. So if you're really

Speaker 3: 02:00 but not the community, then everybody is an equal citizen. Everybody's a human being. So why would you classify different levels of uh, citizens in San Diego?

Speaker 2: 02:12 The downtown planning agencies, civic San Diego rejected the plan and pinnacle, the developer threatened to Sue. Now they are calling a temporary truce to try to come to an agreement. Both civic and pinnacle refused KPBS interviewer requests citing the lawsuit. But pinnacles lawyers sent a statement saying it should be commended for actually building affordable housing instead of paying a fee. As other developers do.

Speaker 1: 02:40 These types of sort of separate entrances for low income tenants are nicknamed pour doors.

Speaker 2: 02:47 Sasha Harnden is a housing policy advocate with the Western center on law and poverty and says developers in other areas, particularly New York city, have tried creating so-called pour doors. He says developers and even cities if they approve the projects, may be violating federal fair housing laws

Speaker 4: 03:08 when a given action may have, you know, a disproportionate impact on a protected class such as people of a certain race, elderly tenants, um, families with children.

Speaker 2: 03:22 Maya Rosis stands on a busy street corner in downtown San Diego. She's a member of the UMB Democrats, which advocates for the housing movement called yes in my backyard. She says it's important for new housing projects to build affordable housing on site. That's how we create integrated communities. It's how we desegregate communities and that's how we let families thrive. That means in theory, she would support a project like pinnacles that would help low income families access the schools, parks, restaurants and shops in downtown. But we need to expect more from our developers to truly integrate our housing. She may get what she wants. A new bill was proposed this week by state assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales that would block developers from creating separate facilities for low income and market rate residents. Claire Traeger, sir KPBS news. Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter Claire triglyceride. Claire, welcome. Thank you. Tell us more about this poor door concept.

Speaker 2: 04:29 What kinds of things are typically off limits to the residents of the low income units within these developments? Sures so, um, for this project it's really the first of its kind as far as we know in, in San Diego. The idea here is that there's a, a rooftop terrace on the taller building, the market rate building that would be off limits to the low income, affordable housing tenants and then a pool and a spa, I believe. But this idea has been going on in other cities, particularly New York city, um, where developers have been trying this for awhile. Um, in some buildings they actually really did make a poor door where low income tenants had to go around the back to get into the building. And then other buildings had, you know, luxury amenities like gyms or even a play room for kids, um, that were only for new tenants who are paying the higher rents.

Speaker 2: 05:24 And what can governments do about this? I can't developers build how they want to build. Uh, I mean that's, you know, maybe a bigger question that we can get to in a minute. But th th the thing that governments can do is that the issue is that a lot of developers take tax credits from governments on these projects, so then governments can kind of use that as, as leverage over them. So in New York, the state passed a law banning separate enter entrances for any building that was using those tax credits. And now this, um, state here in California, state assembly woman, Lauren and Gonzalez has proposed a bill that would do a very similar thing. Um, it went along with another bill that expands San Diego's program of providing density bonuses to developers who include affordable housing in their projects so they can build denser than zoning allows. Um, and but she says those projects can't have separate entrances or separate facilities. And here's what she said at the, um, at the event where she announced the bill,

Speaker 5: 06:28 what I don't want is people can't be in the same building and have access. How do you, how does a single mom explained to her child that she is living, you know, in the same building as somebody from school, but she can't utilize the pool or can't come through the front door that's sick.

Speaker 2: 06:43 Why would a developer want to separate access in a development like this? Well, I mean, like I said, you know, the developer wouldn't give an interview because of this threatened a lawsuit that's going on. I mean, when you think about it, you can imagine, you know, no one's really willing to say on the record that that part of the reason is there's a concern that people who are paying the full rent for, you know, more luxury apartments downtown might not want to live in a mixed use building with people who are paying the affordable housing rates. Um, you know, I think that concept is what has politicians and, and housing advocates like Lorena Gonzalez and some of the other people we heard from in my story up in arms about it is that, you know, they're, they're trying to impose the separation based on this concern that people who could afford the apartments would, you know, not want to share a building with low income tenants.

Speaker 2: 07:43 The developer pinnacle says that even with the unequal access to amenities, at least they're actually building low income units in their development. Is it typical for developers to pay a fee instead of including that housing? Yes, I think that's often what happens. And so pinnacles argument here is that at least they are actually building the housing instead of paying the fee. Um, and building it in an area that needs affordable housing downtown San Diego. And they say, you know, by rejecting that by rejecting the project civic San Diego is causing delays that prevents that badly needed housing from being built. The argument could be made that if low income residents get access to these higher priced amenities, the renters paying market value would be subsidizing that access. But the poverty housing advocate you spoke with also said limiting access could be a fair housing violation. Tell us more about that.

Speaker 2: 08:39 Right. So that's kind of the issue I alluded to earlier with you know, how else governments might be able to control this. Um, he says that it's possible, but it sort of depends on the situation. You really need to look at maybe the composition of the tenants in the building or the programs in the building. Um, but he says the department of fair employment and housing recently enacted a large set of regulations that provide more detail and examples on this. And then he also says that cities may have land use laws or other, you know, more specific provisions that could come into play as well. Where does this situation stand right now between the developer and the city? So they have, um, enacted what, what is called a tolling agreement. Um, which means that there are no lawsuits for 45 days while they negotiate. So I think they're at the table now trying to maybe come to some kind of resolution. Um, that agreement expires on March 6th, but I think that it is a high priority to get this resolved because as we've been saying, affordable housing, especially in downtown, is really badly needed. I've been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger, sir Claire. Thank you. Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.