Sara Butler | Editor
A chat with Councilmember Chris Ward
Heightened issues with the homeless, a lack of affordable housing and a need for infrastructure repairs in Balboa Park continue to plague our neighborhoods — but Councilmember Chris Ward says he is still committed to solving these issues going into the second year of his term on the San Diego City Council.
Ward, who won an outright victory in the June 7 primary, represents District 3. which comprises most of our Uptown neighborhoods, including Hillcrest, North Park, Normal Heights, Mission Hills, University Heights, South Park, Bankers Hill/Park West and Golden Hill, along with Little Italy and Downtown.
During his campaign, Ward promised to dedicate his time to three top-ticket items: homelessness, affordable housing, and Balboa Park.
Since then, these topics continue to guide Ward’s focus while leading District 3. San Diego Uptown News sat down with the council member to discuss advancements in the last 12 months, as well as potential improvements moving into 2018.
Homelessness has been an issue in America’s Finest City for decades and District 3 neighborhoods are no exception.
The 2018 Point-In-Time Count — also known as WeAllCount, the name San Diego uses for the annual, federally-mandated census of homeless persons — was conducted on Jan. 26. Although 2018’s numbers won’t be available until mid-April, Ward reflected on 2017’s figures, which were flat-lined from the previous year.
“The homeless numbers in Uptown neighborhoods were pretty stagnant from 2016 to 2017. Yet we know Uptown residents feel more of a presence in their neighborhoods, and that these numbers continue to fluctuate,” Ward said.
In addition to the county-wide Point-In-Time Count, the Downtown San Diego Partnership creates a monthly homeless census for the Downtown community. In the most recent count, numbers have dropped from a height of around 1,400 in mid-fall of 2017, to 800 in January 2018.
“Albeit in response to hepatitis A, I finally got the mayor to come on board with some emergency [services] measures, like the Safe Campground and Safe Parking programs,” Ward said. “We were able to get some of the most vulnerable off of the streets — 200 people at a time, over 50 of whom were members of a family unit. All of those family members were placed into permanent housing opportunities into apartments of their own.”
Though these Safe Campground and Safe Parking programs are primarily focused on the Downtown area, Ward’s districtwide efforts focus on reuniting families and supporting rapid rehousing.
“Council made a decision on my recommendation to expand the Family Reunification program,” Ward said. “[The program] is something meant for people — primarily out of area-individuals that come to San Diego — fall onto the streets and don’t know how to reconnect with somebody in Phoenix or Indiana.”
As of Jan. 29, 480 individuals have been reunited with family through the program since June of 2017. Over 90 percent of these people are now stable, meaning they have not fallen back into homelessness.
Ward also emphasized the importance of rapid rehousing of at-risk groups as a preventative measure to keep residents off the streets in the first place, such as a family who recently lost their main source of income. These measures, Ward noted, are very inexpensive and cost-effective ways to providing public subsidy.
While these programs — and corresponding figures — look promising, there is still a long road ahead for dealing with certain neighborhoods where high concentrations of homeless people reside.
“I think that we made some expansion efforts but we have a way to go, particularly in the Uptown area,” Ward said. “I’m going to be making huge pushes with our police department and our psychological response technician teams to try to really make a difference for Washington Street and Fifth Avenue, as well as the core of Hillcrest and Mission Hills.
“We’re really frustrated in particular with those who have mental illness or other afflictions that are a danger to business owners and members of the public,” Ward continued.
“There are a lot of individuals that are not well, and we need to figure out where this disconnect is to try and get those people to places where the security and the services help them as individuals.”
In addition to hearing about altercations between homeless people and those within the community — such as the business owner chased with a machete in June 2017 — Ward said he has personally experienced and/or witnessed some himself.
“I have a lot of compassionate constituents and they do care that people are well,” Ward said. “But we’ve all had it. We’ve all had those experiences. There has to be a difference for our neighborhoods this year, because the demand is just too great.”
The homeless problem is noticeable in neighborhood parks, such as North Park Community Park, Normal Heights Ward Canyon Park and the public space by the Adams Avenue Recreation Center.
Ward said he has noticed an uptick of homeless individuals taking over these public spaces, specifically at North Park Community Park. This situation has sparked a heated community debate, with the North Park Recreation Council proposing a park curfew to try to get the homeless out of the area. The North Park Planning Group, however, voted earlier this year to oppose a curfew.
The curfew debate poses a challenge for Ward as a public official, he said; and while he noted that the homeless have a right to use the public space, he said he also recognizes that any illegal behavior that may occur as a result is a danger to nearby residents.
“If it makes my constituents feel a little better or if it’s a tool that gives law enforcement a way to make sure that nothing gets entrenched, then I don’t have any objection [to the curfew],” Ward said. “I have just found that curfews don’t always deliver on the result that people think that it will.”
He also cited potential issues with implementing a curfew, such as the police department’s understaffing, which would hinder law enforcement’s capacity to monitor the curfew. Also, a park curfew would apply to everyone, such as residents walking their dogs at night.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING PUSH
More affordable housing projects were successfully built in the region during 2017, and there are more projects in the pipeline for 2018.
According to Ward, the San Diego Housing Commission wants to take over some properties in Bankers Hill and turn them into affordable housing, something that would both preserve existing housing stock as well as converting some properties that are at risk of demolition.
He also referenced a few units in Golden Hill, Southeastern San Diego in District 4, Hilltop Terrace, old motels in Mission Valley and Grantville, and throughout the San Diego area.
“It’s 50 units here, 100 units there — but we’re trying to have this add up to make a big impact for those who need subsidized affordable housing,” Ward said.
Ward explained that the high cost of living in the Uptown area makes it difficult to provide an adequate affordable housing options, since the difference between the affordable housing subsidy and the market rate is even higher in the region.
“My goal coming into office has always been to try to provide housing opportunities in the communities you want to live in,” he said. “Somebody who wants to live in Hillcrest should not have to be relegated to San Carlos because that’s just where the market meets the pocketbook.”
While the Uptown area has historically taken on most of the affordable housing units, he acknowledged this may need to shift. Already-dense neighborhoods don’t have the capacity they once used to, so the projects will need to be spread out more regionally.
In tandem with the homelessness issue is the need for affordable housing, to help keep people off the streets. He pointed to subpopulations on the street, such as children as young as 4 years old, veterans, seniors and LGBT homeless youth.
Ward noted that the latter group is particularly close to his heart. He commended Assemblymember Todd Gloria for securing $10 million of state funding for this homeless youth.
“40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ,” Ward said. “They need an extra level of support and attention. Many are hidden — often sleeping in cars or couch surfing — so they can be hard to find.”
In addition to supporting homeless LGBT youth, there is also a need for affordable housing for LGBT seniors in the Uptown neighborhoods as well.
The North Park Senior Apartments project, marketed as LGBT-affirming, is currently in the process of allowing residents to move in. The housing project is located on the northwest corner of Texas Street and Howard Avenue, one block south of El Cajon Boulevard. (For additional information on this project, read our sister publication Gay San Diego’s article at bit.ly/2zstbST.)
VACATION RENTAL DISPUTE
Ward has found himself in a bit of a controversy over Airbnb rentals, getting some backlash on his decision to support an ordinance that would govern the short-term lodging facilities.
“We all agree on the same principles. We don’t want neighborhood nuisances, we don’t want any major impact on housing affordability, and we want to create a dedicated team of individuals who can respond to unpermitted activity or loud parties,” he said.
“For me, I also want to be able to see an opportunity for individual San Diegans — not investors — that have an extra unit, or a back house, or they got married and now they have two properties; maybe they want to have a little more flexibility with their property. I’m warm to that.
“There are a lot of people in District 3 — as high cost of living as we have — who see that extra revenue opportunity as a way to have family budgets make their ends meet.”
However, there are legal and practical restraints to solving the issue.
“If you want me to shift away from police officer resources that are responding to emergencies to tackle this, that is a major tradeoff for San Diegans,” Ward said.
He is hesitant to support something that may not work out in the long term and has been studying other California cities that have put forth these type of restrictions — and don’t always deliver the results that residents are lobbying for. Though Ward is pushing for a prompt solution, he does not want to develop an ordinance that gives his constituents false hope.
He added that the City Council anticipates that Mayor Kevin Faulconer will soon offer a proposed set of policy guidelines, which may help the them reach a majority consensus of five votes.
Another topic that Ward is passionate about is Balboa Park. In 2017, he held two public forums to discuss community concerns about the historic public space.
“We heard a lot of common threads, such as focusing on the nuts and bolts of infrastructure and supporting buildings getting up to date. We need to focus on the basics and must-haves first,” Ward said.
In addition to the infrastructure issues, the “crown jewel” of San Diego also faces homeless concerns. In the 2017 Point-In-Time Count, Balboa Park was one of the few areas with a marked uptick in homeless numbers. In 2016, a count between six and nine individuals were recorded, compared to a whopping 110 in 2017.
However, Ward said that this discrepancy may be due to accuracy errors in 2016, since traditionally, volunteers are discouraged from venturing into secluded parks and dark spaces.
Ward’s first Balboa Park forum of 2018 will be held on Feb. 22 at 5:30 p.m. at the San Diego Museum of Art. He described this community gathering as a “place of information [to help constituents] connect the dots.” The meeting will cover bonds, sales/hotel taxes, and revenue policy, among other topics.
LOOKING FORWARD TO 2018
Though addressing homelessness, affordable housing and Balboa Park are still at the top of his to-do list, Ward is also looking forward to new opportunities of focus in 2018.
For one thing, the sophomore council member also just assumed chair of the Economic Development Committee. In this new role, Ward said he hopes to improve city relations with the small-business community.
“A third of all small businesses are actually in District 3, even though we’re one ninth of the population,” Ward said. “We have a lot of main street activity, entrepreneurs and small-business owners that want to make sure the city’s infrastructure is working for them.
“There was very little small-business work being proposed last year, and I definitely intend to move forward on some proposals that can help achieve that end.”
All of the issues Ward is focusing on require major changes — something that some residents in our communities may be wary of. Yet to Ward, it boils down to a balance: what can be done to maintain existing systems, and what can be implemented to better serve his constituents and our neighborhoods.
“You leave everything the same, eventually everything falls into disrepair,” Ward said. “I think there’s a healthy moderated growth that keeps vitality alive in neighborhoods.”
San Diego Uptown News met with Ward for an in-depth interview back in October 2016, after his victory in the June 7 primary. You can read this coverage at bit.ly/2ntdfMi (Part 1) and bit.ly/2nvV9cx (Part 2).
— Sara Butler is editor of Uptown News. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.