By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
In November, Chris Olsen quit his job at City Hall to devote himself to campaigning, a “scary but exciting” step as he runs full tilt to win a seat on the City Council for District 3. The Hillcrest resident typically fundraises in the morning, and walks neighborhoods in the afternoon before evening events.
Olsen’s intensive neighborhood outreach has helped him refine his message — and show that he is not just the “policy wonk” in the race. The “trial by fire” of canvassing taught him how to distill the 10-page policy papers he was used to writing into something for the regular person to understand and connect with.
“I take it as a compliment when people sometimes call me a policy wonk or… urbanist because I do enjoy using data and specifics to get to great solutions. However, the other half of me and the main reason that I’m running is really because I love our city and I’m a resident of it,” Olsen said.
One of the issues he talks about the most while canvassing, and his No. 1 priority, is homelessness.
“I have an alley behind my home and I see homeless people suffering there every day and I don’t see our city responding to that,” he explained. “I see the homelessness crisis firsthand. When I make my way Downtown to work, I see the other half of it, which is the government response and I’m frustrated at the lack of accountability and follow through. Both of those things are really what would have driven me to make this decision to run in it and hopefully be able to serve the city.”
He has proposed a three-prong-approach: rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, and distributing outreach and resources in a city-wide fashion that is not just in District 3.
“[It’s] treating somebody with dignity as a human being and it’s also just more effective because a home is what people would more willingly go into. And then when you attach services to that site, it’s been proven effective in other cities,” he said.
While homelessness may be his top priority, the issue he is perhaps most known for is his support of a fully protected bikeway in general and on 30th Street specifically. While he supports the project on 30th Street because of its added benefits of public safety and increasing bicycle mode share so the city’s climate action plan goals can be met, he dislikes the way the city rolled out the plan. This helps him relate to residents who may not agree on his position, but at least they can commiserate together on how it came to be.
“I think that people have a very valid complaint the information was given to them in a disjointed way. I think some people feel like they were told what was happening rather than being asked about what the community’s vision for an improved, safer 30th Street could be,” Olsen said.
For his part, Olsen said if he were on the City Council, he would work harder to get community buy-in on similar projects so ultimately they can be successful. “The way I would ideally like to see projects like this go in the future is — obviously parking is a concern — we can do a comprehensive parking management strategy upfront and have that discussion first. Then make a strong commitment to neighbors before we do the second part, which is change the infrastructure, change on the bike lanes. To have the bike lane discussion first and then leave a lot of unanswered questions about parking isn’t fair to the residents who have valid fears and it’s also not fair to the success of the project. Nobody benefits from a bad communications roll out.”
A parking strategy could include adding parallel parking, head-in parking, as well as adding residential permits for parking.
While in City Hall, Olsen worked in the independent budget analyst office. He finds predictions that the city’s budget will have a deficit in four of the next five years, even while in a strong economy, “troubling.”
“Where I’ve seen some lack of strategy is often in our city’s contracts, and also in our city’s pattern of real estate deals,” he said. Olsen brought up the dysfunction at 101 Ash St., where the city continues to lose money because the offices keep needing to be vacated.
“That’s not an outlier. It’s kind of a symptom of a real, short-sighted way of doing our city’s real estate deals.”
The budget also contains a way to fund at least the third prong of his homelessness plan. He noted that between the last fiscal year and this fiscal year, the San Diego Police Department’s budget increased overtime solely for homelessness by $8 million.
“The outreach work that police officers do is super important and needed, however, I think it can be delivered a lot more effectively. That $8 million could pay for 100 full-time social workers — they probably have a better chance at connecting with folks because of the intimidation factor and also would free up our officers to then go out and work on investigating crime, which we all know, they’re understaffed,” Olsen said.
Plans and aspirations only matter if they can be executed. Olsen is pitching himself as a problem-solver who will find a solution that will work.
Olsen said, “If you’re going to be successful, I think it involves checking your ego at the door and worrying about bringing community together and solving problems rather than having ‘your idea’ the one that wins. I’m not interested in pursuing political wins.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at email@example.com.