As former chairwoman of the California Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development, I’ve been attending planning groups and community meetings for the last few months throughout San Diego, from Encanto to Rancho Peñasquitos. It’s been an effective if sometimes depressing way to learn more about what is working and not working in terms of local planning, community development, homelessness and affordable housing in San Diego.
Often, these activities are closely interconnected. Typically, the meetings are attended only by a handful of local residents who are hoping to remodel a home, or get a permit for a small business. But increasingly I see the faces of people who are being left behind.
This was the case recently when a campaign volunteer and I attended a meeting of the Rancho Peñasquitos planning board at the Doubletree Golf Resort. We were surprised to walk into a large meeting room full of older adults. The resort staff was hustling to get enough chairs set up for everyone. The board members appeared surprised by this turnout, and were huddled around a table at the front of the room, backs turned to the growing crowd behind them.
Many of the attendees had disabilities, and were English-learners. Several were veterans. I met one man, in his 80s, who had just been released from the hospital after recovering from a stroke. He was having difficulty walking with a cane.
As we passed out information about my mayoral campaign, they were eager to take the flyers and learn more, but not about me. They were desperate to get information about the plans to demolish their homes. Sadly, there was no information available at the board meeting. They had received letters advising them to attend, but no one was ready for them when they arrived.
What I soon learned was this: These were the faces of the residents of Pacific Village Apartments complex in Rancho Peñasquitos. It has provided affordable housing for decades. But now residents are terrified of losing their homes. The complex is scheduled to be demolished and market-rate housing, not additional rentals, will be be put up in its place.
It was clear that the board was not prepared for their arrival. They had no sound amplification system ready to broadcast their remarks, and many of those in attendance were having difficulty hearing and understanding their comments. Concerned that the meeting would not conform to basic accessibility and open-meetings laws, I asked the Doubletree staff to provide an amplified sound system. They quickly did so, and set it up as the meeting continued.
I stayed around afterward and spoke with several of the residents about their situation. My volunteer and I were both haunted by the situation – as we talked the next day, we both mentioned the belief that we were seeing the faces of future homeless, disabled San Diegans. It seems likely many will either move in with family (if they have that option) or into assisted living – at taxpayer expense. Others will be placed on lengthy waiting lists for other “affordable” housing.
I suspect many are more likely to die or become homeless, long before getting a new place to live in San Diego that they can afford, even with their subsidy vouchers.
Their adult children were also there. It was heartbreaking as they discussed their search for suitable housing for their disabled older parents who are living on fixed incomes. One told me the only places they had found were 20 miles away and/or in areas they found unsuitable for their parents, who had lived in their current apartments for decades. Taking them into their homes was possible, but I know from direct experience this can create unexpected financial and caregiving burdens.
Many of those we see every day – the people living on sidewalks, under bridges and on streets – in every neighborhood around San Diego are not “newcomers” who arrived here recently for the nice weather. They are our older, disabled, English-learning, fixed-income adults and veterans who thought they had secure, affordable housing – until they received a letter from a developer, telling them they no longer do.
I’m still haunted by this meeting. Our residents deserve much better than the current system is offering, and as mayor, I will work to make sure they and their families are better served.
Lori Saldaña served six years in the California Assembly, is a current candidate for mayor and a native San Diegan who just bought her first home.