Behind the Scenes: San Diego’s Colossal Homeless Housing Project

Rohit Varma
Dec 11, 2018 · 4 min read

The city of San Diego, California, has struggled a great deal in recent years with rising rates of homelessness. This has prompted the city to implement some radical solutions, including massive temporary tents. Most recently, the San Diego City Council agreed to build 1,260 transitional housing units in various neighborhoods across the city over the course of the coming two years.

The new push is modeled on a similar campaign implemented in Los Angeles earlier in 2018. Worried about placing too much of a burden on any one neighborhood, the San Diego City Council agreed that at least 140 units should be built in each of the nine distinct districts making up the city.

The Particulars of the New Construction Agreement

The plan to spread the new units evenly across the city means no particular neighborhood bears an undue burden in addressing the issue of homelessness in the city. This strategy helps to address concerns from residents adjacent to sites where the new homes will be built.

It also helps to guarantee every part of the city is doing its fair share and engaging with the solution, rather than relegating efforts to other areas. Ideally, all citizens will begin to feel more engaged with the city’s work to end homelessness.

Importantly, the San Diego City Council voted unanimously to approve this commitment. However, the approval is not legally binding. At the same time, it demonstrates the city’s commitment to reducing homelessness and helps rally everyone around a particular goal.

San Diego did something similar three years ago. Mayor Kevin Faulconer made a commitment to transitioning 1,000 veterans experiencing homelessness into homes over the course of a year. While it took 18 months to achieve, merely setting the goal helped push forward with making plans and laying foundations.

The City Council’s Vision for New Supportive Housing

According to the agreement created by the City Council, the new units would include a range of on-site services, including counseling and treatment for substance use disorders. These services will prove crucial to helping people remain housed. Studies suggest housing that provides supportive services helps prevent additional periods of homelessness in approximately 80 to 90 percent of residents.

During the annual head count taken every winter, city officials calculated they would need 1,227 units to move everyone experiencing homelessness from the streets to stable housing. Thus, the City Council hopes a goal of 1,260 will actually serve to bring homelessness to an end in San Diego. Overall, it would increase availability of supportive housing by about 30 percent.

Money from the additional units would primarily come from federal funds the city has already secured. In addition, $32 million toward the new homes would come from state money already allocated to dealing with the homelessness crisis. In addition, the city is considering donating excess public property to the project to speed up the whole process.

Other potential avenues for accelerating construction have also been explored. These methods include expediting approvals, reducing development fees, and minimizing the parking requirements that normally exist for such projects. Expediting the projects is important considering San Diego has significantly fewer supportive housing units per capita than most other major cities in the country.

The Striking Need for Additional Supportive Housing

Currently, San Diego has fewer than 3,000 units of permanent supportive housing available. About half of these are in apartment complexes devoted to this type of housing. Almost all are in District 3, which emphasizes the importance of spreading the new construction throughout the city.

The rest of the units are spread throughout the city, but the three wealthiest districts lack permanent supportive housing at this time. Some of these districts argue they also have fewer individuals experiencing homelessness. However, one of them actually has one of the highest rates of homelessness of any San Diego district.

Fortuitously, San Diego’s effort should prove an excellent complement to similar endeavors now under way in Los Angeles. In February, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to construct 3,330 supportive housing units in the coming two years. The plan will address the low per-capita rate of this type of housing in the city, which is not quite as low as San Diego, but not far behind.

Similar to San Diego, at least 220 units will be constructed in each different district of Los Angeles to involve the entire community in the effort to end homelessness. This sort of concerted effort between cities could play an important role moving forward.

City councils sometimes fear undertaking these projects will draw more individuals experiencing homelessness to their jurisdictions. When all nearby cities undertake similar projects and goals, this concern becomes muted and communities can work together more effectively toward the common good.

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Rohit Varma

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Rohit Varma, MD, MPH, is an internationally recognized opthalmologist and researcher who focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma.

Age of Awareness

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