By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
The fight to add more housing to address the homelessness crisis across the city intensifies as Mission Hills locals oppose converting a vacant library into permanent supportive housing (PSH). Many came to a recent community meeting on May 28 with Council member Chris Ward co-hosted by Mission Hills Business Improvement District and Mission Hills Town Council to learn more about the proposal, ask questions, and voice their opinions on the matter.
The proposal is to convert the 0.189-acre lot of the former Mission Hills Library into 28 units of PSH for chronically homeless individuals. In January, Ward sent a memo to Mayor Kevin Faulconer requesting redevelopment of the site that retained ground floor commercial use, kept the historic midcentury modern façade and included parking spaces for firefighters at Fire Station 8. The site was then included in the mayor’s proposal on May 7 to turn eight sites citywide into PSH, which also offered up sites in City Heights, southeastern San Diego, Linda Vista, Serra Mesa and Miramar.
Permanent supportive housing is subsidized for people who have been homeless long-term and also includes more robust services than affordable housing. Individuals in PSH may be assigned a social worker and have access to a nutritionist and medical care. These wraparound services are meant to keep chronically homeless people from winding up back on the streets.
“We’re not talking about building homeless shelters. We’re talking about building homes for San Diegans who have been crushed by this economy,” Stephen Russell, executive director of San Diego Housing Federation, said at the community meeting.
He described shelters as a temporary fix that still leaves 5,000 people on the streets each night.
“That [a shelter] is the last place we want a homeless person to live. A shelter is an emergency place to live,” Russell said.
One point the opposition made to the proposed PSH is that the site is worth millions of dollars. The library, which has been replaced by the new Mission Hills-Hillcrest/Knox Library, sits at 925 W. Washington St. and is at the entryway of Mission Hills. They argue the profits from selling it could be used to buy a different, larger parcel where even more units could be built.
“That site is worth at least $3 million according to the neighboring site’s sale. It has the opportunity for ocean views that many of us can’t afford, including myself, so I don’t feel it’s fair to pay for someone else’s ocean view,” Curtis Patterson said at the community meeting. “If we want a site in Mission Hills, let’s find a site that doesn’t have the same benefits that that one does and house 50 or more for the same price.”
There is no guarantee another site would not face the same opposition and one of the reasons Ward is championing this solution is because using public property means the development will happen faster as the city scrambles to react to a crisis that is already well underway.
“Stepping outside of Mission Hills, the concept is good. I’ve been asking for us to use city land smarter because we can actually get units created at a far more cost-effective rate to be able to support the provision of additional housing opportunities and truly help solve some people’s homelessness,” Ward said to a room that was overflowing onto the patio and entrance of the library meeting room as residents came to voice their opinions on the proposal.
During the meeting, some residents were also angered by Ward who appeared to distance himself from the proposal by referring to it as the “mayor’s plan.” Ward was behind an October resolution that was unanimously approved by the City Council to add 140 units of PSH in each City Council district by 2021. The mayor then requested each council member provide recommendations about which sites should be converted into PSH in their districts. Ward responded in November with a list of sites in District 3 that could be explored for PSH use, which included the old Mission Hills Library. In January, he sent another memo to the mayor that included community input on what should happen at the site, based in part on the results of a survey Ward’s office conducted.
In that 2018 survey, 26% of respondents wanted businesses to be built in the lot if the building was demolished while 18% supported mixed-use development that included affordable housing with businesses on the ground level.
“A recent proposal from the mayor that is part of the broader citywide proposal to look at permanent supportive housing opportunities that runs in conflict with former conversations we had initiated with you and many of our community groups about what you wanted to see as part of the old Mission Hills Library,” Ward said at the community meeting.
A few organizations have backed the plan, including Rise Up Town which released a statement rebuking those opposed to the plan, saying: “This supportive housing plan has evoked outrage in some corners, from people who believe that their communities do not have to be part of providing a solution. These angry voices demand that others should bear the burden of this task. This line of thinking continues to be a roadblock to progress towards effective solutions. If we keep insisting such issues are for others to solve, the issues will continue to manifest here and everywhere.”
Their statement seemed to be in response to a common sentiment shared at the meeting that affordable housing should be built in poorer areas like City Heights or in undeveloped, rural parts of the county. However, under the mayor’s plan, each council district would need to build 140 units of PSH to spread the burden equally.
Many also spoke in support of small businesses using the space. In his January memo to the mayor, Ward already requested the first floor be commercial and reiterated that statement in the meeting.
“All of this is not necessarily mutually exclusive. We can actually have an integrated project that does something even better for multiple purposes,” Ward said.
While responses covered the entire spectrum, even those who came to support the proposal raised questions about how it would be implemented in the affluent enclave.
Some Mission Hills residents were concerned about who would be allowed to live there. Russell assured them that sex offenders do not qualify to be in PSH and although residents can be enrolled in drug rehab programs, if they are caught with drugs or breaking any other rules, they will be kicked out of the residence.
PSH can sometimes be for particular populations, like veterans or seniors, but there is nothing public yet on who would qualify to live in the proposed Mission Hills housing. PSH is always for particularly vulnerable populations like people who are disabled, mentally ill or suffering from drug addiction who have been homeless for more than one year or have faced repeated periods of homelessness. PSH is part of a housing-first approach that evidence has shown ends homelessness for individuals hardest to serve and also decreases public costs.
In an email to constituents, Ward promised to ask the mayor that information on the proposed population be shared with the community. He also said he would share the community desire for city staff to evaluate the potential sale of the property and use of funds to build more PSH in another location as well as the possibility of city staff to work with adjacent property owners to potentially combine parcels for enhanced development.
When Uptown News reached out to the mayor’s office last week, Ward had yet to brief Faulconer on the community input. Faulconer’s Senior Director of Communications Craig Gustafson confirmed a request for proposals (RFP) will be issued this month for at least five of the eight proposed sites and another RFP will be issued later.
“The choice is simple: We either help people find a place to sleep inside or we condemn them to sleeping outside. Homelessness affects every community, which is why Mayor Faulconer is working with council members to add nearly 200 permanent supportive housing units across the city,” Gustafson said in a statement.
Any winning proposal would be presented to the City Council and require approval before heading to the mayor’s desk.
The plan still faces other avenues of opposition. Mission Hills Heritage is applying for the library to receive local historical designation because the library is the only midcentury modern building remaining in the core business district of Mission Hills. Local firm Legacy 106, Inc. is helping the group with that nomination.
The Town Council also held another meeting about the library on June 13. The Town Council joined Mission Hills Heritage and Mission Hills Business Improvement District in calling on the city to preserve the building and repurpose it.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.