By Elijah McKee
January 30, 2022 (San Diego’s East County) – In the past, getting zoning approval for shelter space in San Diego County could take up to two years and require costly payments.
Now, after the Board of Supervisors unanimously amended a zoning ordinance on Wednesday, there will be fewer obstacles for multiple kinds of safe shelter and housing options, which could especially serve East County.
In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors before the vote, the Office of Homeless Solutions (OHS) laid out the need for new tools and the proposed changes to create them. They are working within a framework for ending homelessness developed by the County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA). It spans the following strategic domains:
- Root cause and upstream prevention
- Diversion and mitigation
- Services, treatment and outreach
- Emergency/interim housing and resources
- Permanent housing and support
On its own, the traditional model of large single-building shelters with shared group spaces does not adequately support people experiencing homelessness. The new zoning allows alternative housing options to be added to the mix, such as transitional housing for up to 24 months, permanent supportive housing, and emergency shelters.
The measure also expands the definition of emergency shelters to include Day Shelters that provide services but no overnight sleeping, Safe Camping and Safe Parking that do allow overnight sleeping, and Safe Storage options.
“This is not a silver bullet, but clearly ending homelessness starts with a home,” said Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer. “I think this action makes it faster to build what we need — stable and affordable options to support those experiencing homelessness — and give them opportunities to succeed.”
Supervisor Jim Desmond also supported the motion, but first he clarified some issues.
“I want to be careful. A one size fits all approach is not the solution,” he said. “We have to make sure there’s community buy-in, and no entity or community feels like it’s being pushed upon them.”
Supervisor Desmond’s concerns echoed those of some community members who have been involved in the brainstorming of potential site locations for new facilities.
Moderated by OHS director Omar Passons, these conversations have covered potential sites in Spring Valley and Lakeside. According to Passons, engaging the public to participate in the process of location consideration is a crucial early step, preceding other matters like funding and implementation details.
However, the County Supervisors looked ahead to those details in order to vote on the zoning ordinance. They recognized the importance to community stakeholders of only building on properties overseen by the County, as well as addressed what regulations would still apply despite the zoning changes.
While new facilities are exempt from zoning planning and permitting under the changes, the regulations that remain are still numerous, to ensure the efficacy of the programs and safety of the surrounding communities. They include building permits, fire code, grading permits, stormwater permits and California Environmental Quality Act compliance. Other regulatory measures, such as the vetting of individuals at Safe Parking sites, are being considered as well.
Revising the zoning code in this way had been in the works since May 19, 2020, when this particular County-level effort began. Since then, HHSA has been pushing the work forward. On July 1, 2021 they established the Department of Homeless Solutions and Equitable Communities to oversee four new offices, including OHS under Passons leadership.
According to the website, the department serves as, “A central point of collaboration for outside partners to ensure equity among all San Diegans and reduce homelessness in the region.”
Supervisor Joel Anderson has also helped nudge the work along, as he introduced a measure in October to start finding new site locations.
The zoning ordinance change is designed to expedite the aid San Diego governments can provide to the large unhoused population. The next steps now lie within the ability of OHS, community partners, and residents to collaborate and decide where it makes the most sense to test out the refurbished housing toolkit the County has officially approved.