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Affordable Housing in San Diego...Is It Really?

Updated on August 1, 2016

There are three “basic needs” crucial for survival: food, shelter, and clothing. To withhold any of these needs is to deny a person’s inalienable right to life. Certainly no one could be so cruel as to willfully restrict any of these basic needs from another human, not to mention a whole community of fellow humans. However, the right to shelter is currently withheld from many here in the United States, especially in San Diego, one of the most expensive places to live in the nation with housing costs vastly greater than what many households can afford. In fact, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, over 55% of renters in San Diego County live in “unaffordable” homes. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) defines housing as “affordable” if it costs less than 30% of a household’s monthly income when including the household’s rent or mortgage and utilities. In order to guarantee houses for those who cannot afford houses at regular market prices, California and San Diego government programs offer financial incentives to home developers in exchange for keeping rents below market. However, these programs have met barely a fraction of the need. Developers have the option of paying a fee instead of including on-site affordable housing. For example, in early June, all four projects to build much needed housing in downtown San Diego chose to pay a fee, altogether $12.4 million, rather than include affordable units on site. Furthermore, according to the California Housing Partnership Corporation (CHPC), 5392 units, nearly 50 percent of affordable homes, benefitting from public subsidies are at risk of reverting to market-rate, with some already reverted. In order to finally address this ongoing affordable housing crisis, the San Diego local government must require developers to include affordable housing for a fifth of all new projects.

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The strong forces against such a change are home developers who, understandably, hope to maximize their profits. However, less understandably, they do so by exploiting the current California planning system in order to minimize affordable housing. Rather than responding to the demand for cheaper, more affordable homes, developers are building pricey homes for buyers with ample credit. Developers argue that increased supply of costly homes will increase affordability because when the rich buy more expensive new homes, their old homes are handed down to the less rich, a cycle that travels all the way to the poor. However, this leave-it-up-to-developers policy neglects the lack of upward mobility, especially in the lower and middle-income groups for the last few decades. As the result, the wealthy simply get wealthier and buy multiple properties, while the rest of the population is faced with significant financial barriers from buying or renting any home at all. After all, as Oliver Wainwright, the Guardian's architecture and design critic, questioned, "Why would any commercial developer agree to anything that makes less profit than the maximum that can possibly be squeezed out?”

Although Wainwright certainly has a point, desire for maximal profit is not the only reason for the lack of affordable housing. In spite of the high demand for homes in coastal cities like San Diego, a variety of factors inhibit developers from addressing the demand for more affordable homes, the major one being the local community, especially in affluent communities. There is always the homeowners’ fear that adding affordable homes will lower their home resale values and increase crime rates. Potential safety concerns are backed up by studies done by the US Department of Justice reporting for roughly 20% more crimes for areas with lower income and poor education, thus making affordable homes a threat not only to a homeowner’s financial wellbeing but also to a homeowner’s personal wellbeing. However, evidence points to the idea that neighborhood conditions and the presence of middle-class neighbors benefit lower income families and children in terms of increased employment, reduced crime, hopeful educational outcomes, and improved health. Nevertheless, fear drives residents to use their land use authority to deter new affordable housing development. Consequently, San Diego is increasingly becoming exclusive of only the wealthy who can afford living here. To homeowners, a home is simply a financial asset, whereas it is a necessity to many households in San Diego. Is the decrease in home values of households who can actually afford the insane price of a San Diego home more important than providing homes for households who cannot even afford to pay market level rent?

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With more affordable housing, the overall community would become more diversified with people of various economic backgrounds. A study by the Century Foundation showed that low-income students performed better in schools with economic diversity. With more than 20 percent of children in San Diego living below the poverty line according to the Center on Policy Initiatives, affordable housing could give their household’s affordable homes and allow them to attend schools like mine, which is located in an area with a substantial middle-class population. Affordable housing could provide the solution to economic integration in schools that could give us all a better picture of America as a whole, with its variety of people from varying backgrounds. That would prepare us for life after school by making us more world-conscious citizens who understand the people in this nation we are trying to improve.

Outside of benefits for schools and their students, an increase in affordable housing would address an entire segment of workers vital to San Diego. A study released by the Center for Housing Policy stating that a household in San Diego County must earn nearly $46,000 every year to afford a one-bedroom apartment and $10,000 dollars more for a two-bedroom unit. Needless to say, public service jobs, despite their importance to the cohesion and fostering of communities, do not pay enough to match the exorbitant rent and home costs. That means educators, policemen, and firefighters most likely live in unaffordable homes. Especially in more expensive communities, more affordable homes are necessary. After all, no one should have to spend their hard earned money on gas to drive to school every day. Not to mention, we need policemen to provide safety and peace in our community and firefighters to save us from fires that may spontaneously erupt. Our need for public service workers and affordable homes for them cannot possibly be less important than the need of rapacious home developers for profit or homeowner exaggerated fears of decreased home prices.


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For some reason, the United States, and specifically San Diego, has chosen to neglect shelter as a necessity, a fundamental key to survival. Imagine if distributors of food stamps could choose not to give them out to the needy by simply paying a fee. That would be absolutely outrageous! What makes providing shelter an exception then? San Diego must set down a requirement for developers to include affordable housing for a fifth of all new projects. No one should be forced to make the impossible choice between rent or groceries, rent or medication, or rent or gas to earn a living.

What do you think?

Should there be more affordable housing?

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Works Consulted

Armlovich, Alex. "3 Fixes For America’s Urban Housing Crunch." US News. U.S.News & World Report, 22 June 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Baxamusa, Murtaza H. "How to Fix California's Housing Affordability Crisis - San Diego UrbDeZine." San Diego UrbDeZine. San Diego UrbDeZine, 07 July 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Burke, Megan, Maureen Cavanaugh, and Peggy Pico. "San Diego City Council Declares Affordable Housing Emergency For 12th Year In A Row." KPBS Public Media. KPBS Public Broadcasting, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Dolan, Maura. "Developers Can Be Required to Include Affordable Housing, California High Court Rules." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 15 June 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Greem, Catherine. "Wanna Fix San Diego's Housing Crisis? Start Here." Voice of San Diego. Voice of San Diego, 05 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Hertz, Daniel. "Affordable Housing Would Be Much Fairer If It Were Treated Like Food Stamps." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 19 Oct. 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

HOW SAN DIEGO COUNTY’S HOUSING MARKET IS FAILING TO MEET THE NEEDS OF LOW-INCOME FAMILIES. San Diego: California Housing Partnership Corporation, May 2014. PDF.

Pivo, Gary. The Definition of Affordable Housing: Concerns and Related Evidence. N.p.: Fannie Mae, 16 Sept. 2013. PDF.

"San Diego's Voice for Affordable Housing." San Diego Housing Federation. San Diego Housing Federation, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Showley, Roger. "Downtown Rental Towers Vary in Approach." Downtown Rental Towers Vary in Approach. The San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 June 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

UPDATE ON CALIFORNIA’S AFFORDABLE HOUSING CRISIS. California: California Housing Partnership Corporation, Apr. 2015. PDF.

Wainwright, Oliver. "Revealed: How Developers Exploit Flawed Planning System to Minimise Affordable Housing." The Guardian. The Guardian, 25 June 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

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