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Sacramento Report: 5 Questions for San Diego’s New Assemblyman

Councilman Chris Ward speaks at a press conference at Golden Hall. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Democratic City Councilman Chris Ward will soon become San Diego’s only new guy in Sacramento, but he already knows his way around.

Before he was elected to the Council, he served as chief of staff to former state Sen. Marty Block for eight years.

He won the 78th District seat vacated by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who was elected mayor. The district includes most of San Diego’s coastal and urban core neighborhoods, as well as the cities of Coronado, Del Mar, Imperial Beach and Solana Beach.

I spoke to Ward this week about the ideas and experiences he’ll bring to Sacramento.

VOSD: You’ve worked in Legislature as a staffer for a long time. What did you take with you from that experience about how you want to legislate or don’t want to legislate?

Ward: So I think it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, it comes down to constituent services. Yes, I definitely want to talk about a legislative package and the things that we need to do to advance policy and budget requests, but what we need to make sure right now is that district constituents who are struggling with unemployment, with housing insecurity, with health care, if they lost a job, are able to have access to state resources and cut through the red tape and make sure that we are keeping them secure through these really perilous times. So that’s going to be really fundamentally No. 1. Something that I can do on Day One is to set up that office and make sure that ongoing casework from Assemblymember Gloria’s office is unimpeded, and for a new request that comes in that my team knows exactly how to access state agencies to get the answers constituents need.

Throughout your tenure on the City Council, you’ve been focused on housing and homelessness, two big issues facing the Legislature that lawmakers have had a tough time passing big solutions on. Just last session, Senate Leader Toni Atkins’ bill to allow fourplexes on single-family lots died. What’s your outlook on passing laws that will make a meaningful dent in the crisis?

Well, I do believe that there is going to be some further attempts to be able to continue to either re-introduce or build upon some of that effort. Obviously, some of these conversations, while the solutions are needed yesterday, are going to take multiple years to actually get through the legislative process. I tend to be a pro-housing legislator. That’s what I ran on. We need to make sure that we are having responsible conversations with our constituency groups, but figuring out how to get the yes, as opposed to how to rest on no is I think going to be paramount for addressing our statewide housing crisis on homelessness. Of course, you correctly noted I’ve had a front row seat on a lot of our local leaderships’ abilities to be able to reform systems and programs to be in line with national best practices.

We’ve relied fortunately on a lot of state assistance that was coming in in the last two years that we did not have. When I came into office in 2016, and particularly in these stressful budget times that we’re going to be enduring for at least the foreseeable year, we need to make sure that those revenue streams are protected because we are trying to use those in a much more effective way to address and reduce homelessness in San Diego. And while this is multi-year in nature to really work on the total population that we have, we need to make sure that we don’t have the rug ripped out from under us. Now that we are seeing efforts like hotel acquisitions being turned into supportive housing, while we are seeing a lot of these state dollars actually fund the critical outreach, mental health and housing-oriented solutions that we need here for those trying to resolve their homelessness, ripping that funding away would really set us back.

And of course we’re watching, under some of the COVID impacts, the stressors we have on renters and with those who might own homes. We do not want to see them unduly evicted and displaced or have them foreclosed upon. It’s much of the same conditions that I experienced as a legislative chief of staff in 2008, 2009, during the Great Recession when we had mass foreclosures going on. How does this state actually help its resources directly and other organizational partners to prevent foreclosure and prevent eviction? You know, we’ve got our work cut out for us, but those are going to be some key things that I’m going to be taking with me to Sacramento and make sure whether it’s through policy or direct constituent services that we are keeping things stable for the families that need it.

Speaking of housing, what sort of bills would you get behind or sponsor to increase housing production, particularly at the low- and middle-income levels where production has long fallen short of the needs?

San Diego has done a really good job to try to do incentive-based measures. For example, AB 2345, that Lorena Gonzalez authored and successfully passed in the last session, is one example of local legislation here that was able to actually become a statewide option for development to make sure that they were availing themselves of more opportunities to produce more affordable housing statewide. And that’s good. Our housing pressures are not just city-specific. The market really responds regionally. So it’s important that no matter if you are in San Diego or El Cajon or in Oceanside, that all housing developments are able to figure out new ways of being able to realize more affordable housing units. It would be great to be able to continue additional housing dollars, to be able to match federal resources or in some cases, other local positive money that are going to be able to directly subsidize and produce more affordable and middle-income units.

That’s why in the context of everything else that we have to monitor in the state’s budget, that’s going to be something I’ll be attuned to during the budget conversations and make sure that those revenue streams are protected. On the housing production side, we want to make sure that some reasonable and modest improvements on how we are allowing housing production to actually take place are afforded. I think that’s where some things got tripped up in, in current legislative processes. But like I said, some of these come from the need for ongoing education and support to legislators that may previously have been not supportive and really need to understand that until we are allowing more housing where it makes sense, around transit, around established infrastructure, we are only further kicking the can down the road.

Homelessness has also been one of your big priorities in your political career. What reforms on homelessness do you plan to bring forward? 

Councilman Chris Ward, chair of the Regional Taskforce on the Homeless, takes part in the 2020 point-in-time count. / Photo by Megan Wood

I’m already starting to meet with both local and state entities that really govern a lot of the implementation of homelessness. And I know a couple of things. One, it is critical that we are getting those allocations to the community as fast as possible. This can’t be bogged down in bureaucracy that takes two years to actually help an organization receive that money or help a new project actually begin to build, much like we have the governor’s Project Homekey dollars in the last couple of months, that were afforded through the state budget. We want to make sure that is getting to local governments that are ready to go and are ready to say yes. That’s exactly what we did here in San Diego: Position ourselves to apply for those, to receive those funds and to acquire new properties so that we can house more individuals.

I think Sacramento has been funding more and more homeless programs over the years, and that’s been a good thing, but we have to make sure that there is actually accountability and that we’ve got a way to monitor where those dollars are going, whether they are going to the Bay Area or Los Angeles, Orange County or even San Diego. Looking at those outcomes and making sure that they are actually reducing homelessness, that they are aligned with housing first obligations, that they are showing an adoption of local best practices, that they are committing those dollars because they’re limited, they’re finite. And once they’re out of the state’s coffers, we trust that they’re being used in the most effective way. But we also have responsibilities to the state to make sure that if its programs are not working, that there is the potential for a fallback and a redistribution to programs or areas that are working.

I further want to make sure that areas of the state who are receiving funding and are showing progress through the point in time count or other ways that we measure the presence of homelessness, that areas that might be doing a good job are not disadvantaged through a future budget allocation. So for example, in the [fiscal year 2019] budget, I worked as a local official with Sen. Atkins, her office and noted that because we were seeing a reduction in our point in time count, we actually stood to lose money here in San Diego because that annual count number has been reduced. And they were just kind of oversimplifying the state formula and just applying it based on a Census number. That’s not fair, if we’re doing a better job and things are working. Let’s keep that funding stream going because we have a lot more to work on. We shouldn’t be disadvantaged compared to other parts of the state that may not have their act together.

Another area where lawmakers have a hard time getting things over the finish line is police reform. Police unions still have a major influence over what gets passed in the Capitol. You appear to be the only San Diego Assembly member who didn’t receive money from the police unions in this cycle. Is there a reason for that?

You know, I don’t know, but I can say that with my time addressing many of these issues between our community and police officers, both rank and file and police leadership, I understand the historic injustices that many have faced, and we are ready for a culture change that does not disrespect the profession of those who choose to get into law enforcement and choose that as a career, but make sure that we have protections in place so that everybody is treated fairly. And most importantly, that the use of force and the powers that come with that job are never inappropriately exercised on an individual. I understand that there’s a lot of other ideas, some of those also do not make it across the finish line at the end of the year in August. Many of those I think are going to be revived. [There is] the special committee of the Assembly that has been impaneled to begin working on this right now and likely a lot of those recommendations will be coming forward in the form of legislation early in the ‘21, ‘22 sessions.

Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

AG Warns San Diego County Against Approving Otay Development

The state attorney general’s office cautioned San Diego County against approving the proposed Otay Village 13 [1], a roughly 1,900-acre mixed-use development proposed east of Chula Vista.

The project hasn’t adequately addressed the increased wildfire risk that the development in that area will cause in its draft final environmental impact report, wrote Deputy Attorney General Kimberly Gosling in a comment letter [2].

“As we come out the other side of yet another destructive wildfire season, it has never been more important for local governments to carefully review and consider the risks associated with approving new developments in fire-prone areas,” said Attorney General Becerra in a statement [3] about the office’s comments about the development. “We urge the County of San Diego to fully evaluate – and work to mitigate – the wildfire risks posed by the Otay Ranch project before moving any further in the approval process.”

Becerra’s office had previously commented about the wildfire risk in a letter about the project’s draft environmental impact report in December 2019.

The county’s response to the letter, Gosling wrote, “incorrectly denies that an increased risk exists. According to the County, ‘there is no evidence that higher density residential development in San Diego County — including development in the wildland-urban interface — has increased fire-ignition frequency.’”

The wildland-urban interface is an invisible line where human development meets flammable vegetation, and it’s where the most destruction from wildfires occurs.

Otay Village 13 is one of several projects proposed in wildfire risk zones this throughout the county that have been seeking special permission to build because they don’t fit the requirements laid out in the county’s general plan.

In the meantime, some of the worst wildfires in California history have happened, including 2018’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed 11,000 homes in Paradise. The Lilac Fire in San Diego in 2017 destroyed more than 180 structures, roughly half of which were homes. Nearly 7,500 residents had to be evacuated.

In June, the County Board of Supervisors rejected Lilac Hills Ranch [4], another large development project in northeast San Diego County, citing wildfire concerns.

The attorney general’s office advised the county to make several changes to the final environmental impact report that reflect the increased fire risk and propose ways to mitigate that risk, such as providing a means of safe evacuation in the case of a fire.

The report in its current form, Gosling writes, “neither acknowledges that added risk nor assures that the community can be evacuated safely. It also fails to address the project’s impact on the evacuation of nearby communities that use the same roads, and the impact on firefighters and emergency responders who must access the site and prevent the spread of a wildfire while the project and neighboring areas are evacuating.”

Maya Srikrishnan

County, Oceanside, Encinitas Will Receive Housing Funds

Oceanside, Encinitas and the county are set to receive funds tied to Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins’ 2017 law to provide a permanent source of money for affordable housing projects.

Sen. Patricia Bates announced this week that nearly $2 million in state SB 2 funds will flow to the county to support building new affordable rental housing and a county program to aid first-time homebuyers with down payments. Bates’ office also confirmed Oceanside will receive nearly $650,000 it hopes can support a year-round homeless shelter in the city, funds the city discussed months ago [5] in its continued discussions about the need for shelter beds in the coastal city.

Megan Crooks, Oceanside’s interim neighborhood services director, said the city plans to soon ask service providers to propose potential uses of those funds and will encourage them to focus on shelter options.

Oceanside and Encinitas are also poised to get $500,000 and $300,000 respectively to support planning efforts expected to accelerate housing development in the two cities. The Oceanside City Council signed off on plans to use the expected funds to support the city’s Smart and Sustainable Corridors Plan, which seeks to add new housing along the city’s transportation corridors, while Encinitas leaders will use the funds to back the city’s El Camino Real specific plan.

The state funds from SB 2 come from a $75 filing fee added to certain real estate transaction documents and have been slowly trickling to counties and cities [6] across the state since Atkins passed the bill in 2017.

Lisa Halverstadt

Golden State News