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The Other Homelessness Measure That Could Hit the November Ballot

A City Council committee on Wednesday voted to begin drafting a potential $900 million bond measure that could pay for an estimated 7,500 homes for homeless and low-income San Diegans.

A homeless woman walks down 17th Street in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Another ballot measure aimed at attacking San Diego’s homelessness and housing crisis has cleared an initial hurdle.

A City Council committee on Wednesday voted to have city attorneys begin drafting a potential $900 million bond measure for the November ballot that supporters say could bankroll an estimated 7,500 homes for homeless and low-income San Diegans.

There are many details to be ironed out, including how the measure might complement or even compete with two other possible homelessness-focused ballot measures. The bond measure would increase property taxes on city residents by an estimated $19 per $100,000 of assessed home value, allowing the cityto take out nearly $1 billion in bonds that it would pay off using the new revenue. The City Council committee will hear the measure again before the full Council decides whether to send it to voters.

The San Diego Housing Federation, an affordable housing advocacy group, is pushing the bond measure.

Supporters believe the measure could house about 2,500 of the city’s most vulnerable homeless residents plus provide another 5,000 units for low-income families, veterans, disabled people and seniors on the brink of homelessness.

Affordable-housing advocates acknowledge these numbers could change upon further analysis thanks to recent federal corporate tax reforms. They also acknowledge the measure won’t solve San Diego’s massive housing crisis but say it could dramatically reduce chronic homelessness and help the city begin to bat back growing housing woes.

Exhibit A of the enormity of that housing problem: A draft regional planning agency report released last fall estimated that the city issued permits for just 7 percent of the homes that it’s anticipated to need for low- and moderate-income residents. Between 2010 and 2016 — seven years out of an 11-year, state-mandated cycle — the city issued permits for just 3,818 homes reserved for people with low and moderate incomes, out of a projected demand of 54,143.

The magnitude of the region’s housing and homeless problem has some bond supporters already making the case that other November ballot measures in the works, particularly a hotel-tax hike, could bolster their plans.

Signature gatherers this week hit the streets in hopes of placing a citizens’ initiative on the ballot that would increase hotel taxes to fund a Convention Center expansion and street repairs, and invest $2 billion in yet-to-be-detailed homelessness initiatives over 40 years.

The business and labor coalition behind the measure hasn’t come out in support of the bond measure, though some union leaders have suggested they could pair well together.

City staffers are also working behind the scenes on another November ballot proposal from City Councilman David Alvarez that would devote a portion of existing hotel-tax collections to homelessness needs. Alvarez’s measure will also need the approval of the City Council to be placed on the ballot.

Stephen Russell, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, the champion behind the housing bond, has said the swifter influx of resources along from the hotel-tax increase or Alvarez’s measure could be paired with bond money that will take longer to deploy. He estimated it would likely take three to four years to see initial new projects funded by the bond measure he’s proposed, due to the time necessary to pursue bonds, line up other financing and build.

Revenue from the hotel-tax hike could provide immediate help and be paired with bond money for brick-and-mortar projects to provide necessary services for homeless people, Russell said. “The need is great and we see these as both complementary and potentially synergistic measures that are up to the scale of the problem,” he said.

Sue Reynolds, CEO of nonprofit developer Community HousingWorks, was more direct about the need for help from multiple sources.

“We need both,” said Reynolds, who emphasized the need for money for services through a second tax measure. “We are not gonna make a dent in homelessness without both.”

Reynolds was among a chorus of homeless advocates on Wednesday who noted that San Diego needs more cash to effectively compete for state and federal resources to combat homelessness, including two state measures that could bring tens of millions of dollars in help.

Other California communities passed revenue measures in 2016, putting them in a better position to vie for those matching funds.

Yet City Councilman Mark Kersey, a Republican eyeing a state Senate seat, expressed skepticism on Wednesday. He raised a series of questions about spending plans, the burden on city taxpayers to try to address a regional problem and how the measure compared with the hotel-tax increase. He was ultimately the sole member of the City Council’s Rules Committee, to vote against forwarding the measure to the city attorney.

Both of San Diego’s likely tax-increase measures face long odds – even on their own. Both are aiming for a two-thirds vote.

Russell on Wednesday pointed to a Housing Federation-funded poll showing more than 70 percent of likely city voters would support the bond measure, leaving it a thin margin for passage, especially if any opposition materializes.

The coalition behind the hotel-tax measure has not released polling.

Other homeless advocates, including businessman Michael McConnell, appear likely to support only one of the two measures.

McConnell, who spoke in support of the bond on Wednesday, has criticized the hotel-tax measure for its lack of specificity on homelessness solutions. Supporters wrote the measure to allow for flexibility and future decision-making by the mayor and City Council, an approach they say allows experts to responsibly deploy resources as needed over four decades.

The bond measure, on the other hand, pledges to solely invest in homes for low-income San Diegans, including those now living on the streets, over the next several years.

“This is targeted, it’s focused,” McConnell said. “It will accomplish something.”

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