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A little more than six years ago, my home was a 1994 Ford Explorer. I was a first-year student at California Western School of Law and life circumstances — and a lot of misguided pride — made the backseat of an SUV my best housing option.
My finals were particularly tough that semester. My scholarship, and my future as a law student, were in jeopardy. Fortunately, my student aid kicked in at the beginning of the next semester and I was able to get back on my feet. Two years later, I delivered the commencement address at my class graduation.
Compared to the challenges other San Diegans face right now, I was very, very lucky.
I had a car to climb into at the end of the day while so many others were forced to take shelter on the street. What I did not realize at the time was that my challenge of homelessness was not so unique. It was part of a sweeping crisis of student homelessness that has only gotten worse.
Today, one third of community college students face uncertain housing or homelessness. Stories similar to mine are easy to find from students experiencing homelessness themselves or who know someone who is.
My parents and little sister, a City College student, were recently pushed out of their Golden Hill studio after their rent doubled in less than a year. In 2016, a friend and I worked for months to find housing for homeless veterans. Even with housing vouchers, we came up short. There simply aren’t enough places to live in San Diego.
As a candidate for the San Diego Community College Board of Trustees, these stories and my own struggles weigh on my mind. With few exceptions, there is more finger pointing than problem solving. We must move from assigning blame to accepting responsibility.
From the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to local school boards, every body of government must do what it can to pull the three levers that make up the solutions to this problem: 1) housing supply 2) wages and 3) rent stabilization.
The San Diego Community College District can serve as an example by taking action on what it can control — housing supply and wages. While the district has taken some great steps to help homeless students, we have the means and resources to ensure no student or educator ever ends up without a home.
It’s not a pipe dream. The district can partner with affordable housing developers to build housing for low-income students and adjunct faculty who are struggling to get by. Doing so will not only be a life changer for those who live in this housing; it will increase San Diego’s overall supply of affordable homes and apartments. Because the land would be leased by a developer, the financial burden on the district would be limited.
The positive impact of such a project would also be multiplied if the work was done under a project labor agreement with a local hire provision, which would ensure timely and quality completion while offering good jobs to hard-working San Diegans.
Second, by increasing the percentage of full-time faculty and counselors working for the district, a sizable group of folks who meet the Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of being in need of affordable housing would see their lives stabilized. If we do not take this kind of action, I fear that the heartbreaking stories from the Bay Area about homeless adjunct professors will become our reality. It would be a moral failure to allow the same to happen in San Diego.
Some may say a community college district should not have to solve housing problems. I agree. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t have to, but that doesn’t change the fact that our community is in crisis. These are not normal times. No body of government or educational institution is immune to the grave consequences of failing to take action.
To borrow a phrase from the Navy, this is an all-hands-on-deck moment of truth for San Diego. Are we going to rise to the occasion and make this a community where folks can afford to live a safe and healthy life? Or are we going to continue to take half-measures and allow our city to become a cautionary tale as a place with a world of potential that could not get its act together when it came to housing, the most basic of human needs?
America’s finest moments have always centered around folks banding together in the toughest of times. This is America’s Finest City’s opportunity to do the same.
Sean Elo is president of the San Diego Young Democrats and a candidate for the San Diego Community College Board of Trustees.
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