By Miriam Raftery and Briana Gomez
Photo, left: La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis
September 24, 2020 (La Mesa) – By a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors voted to withdraw its application for state grant funding to convert the Holiday Inn motel on Parkway Drive in La Mesa into a Homekey transitional living and long-term supportive housing facility for the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was concern over a lack of transparency and inadequate notice given to most city officials and the public. Under grilling by Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a staffer revealed that the county first notified La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent on August 12, who did not immediately inform other councilmembers of the proposal.
Parent has drawn criticism for accepting campaign contributions from the executive director of Affirmed Housing, the project developer, and for donations that Affirmed Housing made to underwrite Circulate San Diego, a nonprofit of which Parent is executive director and general counsel. After drawing public criticism on social media for his perceived conflict of interest, Parent ultimately recused himself from voting on the project, which La Mesa’s City Council voted 4-0 to oppose on Monday night.
Supervisor Jim Desmond switched his previous vote to support the grant application, joining with Supervisor Dianne Jacob and Kristin Gaspar to oppose it after hearing testimony from La Mesa Mayor Mark Arapostathis and receiving numerous emails from the public, most opposed to the project as proposed.
Mayor Arapostathis told Supervisors, “The city was never contacted by the County. The developer contacted a council member. Nobody else was contacted.” He contended that the city manager ultimately contacted the county after hearing of the project, ”not the other way around,” in contrast to what county staff had claimed. “The city of La Mesa never approved a letter or email accepting this on behalf of the city; this one person did that,” he said in an apparent reference to Parent. He added that the city’s homeless task force also opposed this particularly program.
The Mayor said the Holiday Inn was not for sale at the time the proposal was put forward; the city stands to lose $500,000 a year in hotel occupancy tax money if it converts to another use.
“This project was imposed on us,” said the mayor, who said objections were due to the location’s proximity to the city’s gateway, a disproportionate number of units (141) compared to the number of La Mesa homeless people (51, as of the January Point in Time County), and “no assurance that the La Mesa homeless population will be prioritized.”
He emphasized that La Mesa did on Sept. 15 direct staff to move forward on a homeless outreach model “to try to help our homeless.” He said that at the council’s special meeting Monday, 165 members of the public spoke, with 130 against, 14 for, and 9 taking no stance. “Most were very articulate and said they want to help the homeless, but this project was not done in full transparency.”
Other objections raised by those opposed included the fact that the facility would have no requirement for residents to be sober and drug-free, leading neighbors to have concerns over potential drug-related crimes such as theft.
Affirmed Housing executive vice president Jimmy Silverwood told supervisors that the facility would include on-site wraparound services including case management, job training, food assistance, money management, a substance abuse program and more. While participation would have been voluntary, he said that 90% of residents at the company’s similar projects in other cities chose to participate in at least some wraparound services. But the “housing first” model mandated by the state does not allow restricting occupancy to require residents be sober or drug-free.
The site was chosen due to its proximity to medical facilities, shopping, and transit; the motel also was configured to need little major remodeling to accommodate the needs for some 70 homeless and 69 at risk of becoming at risk of homeless, as well as offices and more. One benefit for the city would have been a reduction in the amount of affordable housing mandated by SANDAG that La Mesa would have to build 139 of the units would have partially offset the 430 units required.
The County had a narrow window to apply for some $36 million in Cares Act funds for the Homekey facility.
But under the fast-track schedule, no community meetings would have been scheduled until November 2020 through 2021 –after the grant approval by the county, though it is uncertain whether the state would have approved the application. The facility would have provided housing and on-site (not walk-in) services for homeless from across the county’s unincorporated region.
Photo right, by Dave Myers: A homeless man sleeps outside of La Mesa's City Hall.
At Tuesday’s Supervisors meeting, some did urge support of the proposal.
Debra Fountain, who is with a supportive housing group, urged Supervisors to “stay the course. Acquire it,” citing an “urgent critical need in San Diego County for supportive housing…Funds are available now and may not eve be again…The pandemic has thrown a light on health impacts on those who do not have homes for social distancing and quarantine” on top of 10-year-long wait times for subsidized housing, leaving those unable to pay rent due to COVID-19 with no place to go. She added that the San Diego region ranks last among major metropolitan areas in supportive housing units, with only 119 per 100,000 residents countywide.
Dave Myers, a retired Sheriff officer who lives a mile west of the proposed project, suggested the city and county work together to “make this a reality. I am in full support of conversion to make supportive housing permanent with wrap around services,” he said, adding that as for concerns about crime, hotels themselves can be hotbeds for criminal activities. He cited the nearby Heritage Inn, where he said “human trafficking has been facilitated” along with “murders and SWAT calls” taking up law enforcement resources. By contrast, he said the Homekey project would have 24-huur security. He also noted that many homeless people do have jobs and urged council to support it.
Ernie Valdez, however, voiced opposition, calling it “negligent and downright reckless” to implement the mandate without careful assessment including an environmental impact report. “You were all elected by the people and not by a developer,” he added. “If I were in Colin Parent’s shoes, I would resign immediately from my position…Who was involved with picking this property?”
Supervisor Jacob made a motion to withdraw the application, calling the process “very flawed.” She said, “I don’t believe it’s worth the money to force the project on the city of La Mesa where officials voted and don’t’ want it.” Supervisor Gaspar seconded the motion.
Supervisor Greg Cox, a former mayor of Chula Vista, noted that there is nearly also opposition to unpopular land uses but said “the applicant has an excellent reputation” and that he believed the project would not have an adverse impact on the community. He noted that the city would lose transient occupancy tax (TOT, or hotel room tax revenues) anyway if the hotel is sold for another use such as housing or offices.
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said “We have a real problem with homelessness…The only solution to it is housing.” Not getting people off the streets results in other cost at emergency rooms, 911 calls, etc. he observed, but acknowledged the process is “not ideal.” He said that “90% taking services is higher than if we left them on the streets. This is a responsible developer that has done this and done it successfully in countless communities.”
Supervisor Desmond admitted he felt torn on the issue. He asked for but failed to get assurances whether La Mesa’s homeless would be given adequate priority or whether the city might be provided any resources if the project turned out to cause issues such as added law enforcement calls. In the end, he cited the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would want others to do unto you, and decided he could not support forcing the project on the city when its mayor and the majority of residents who contacted officials had voiced opposition.
The action came one night after La Mesa’s special meeting at which the issue of the development was addressed and outcry from community was hostile toward Councilmember Parent and toward the project in general.
Various presentations took place after which public comment was heard and the council made a decision on how to report to the Tuesday meeting.
The City of La Mesa’s Special Meeting Sept 21
The La Mesa City Council held a special meeting on Monday to address the county’s proposed facility for the homeless at the Holiday Inn, which Councilmember Akilah Weber noted is La Mesa’s only three-star hotel.
Councilmember Parent did not participate from the discussion, recusing himself due to the applicant making a donation to his nonproift disclosure.
The project is a joint application by the County of San Diego and Affirmed Housing, Inc.
The City, the County and the developer all had the opportunity to present.
The city presentation indicated the state’s $600 million Homekey Program is primarily funded by the federal CARES Act to provide purchase of hotels and motels to create supportive housing. Two projects have already been approved in San Diego. The County anticipated using $19 million from Homekey funding and $2.6 million from County funds.
According to staff, the City of La Mesa made aware of the application being submitted to the state on the day that it was submitted. The city had no role in the site selection. La Mesa has 52 unsheltered homeless, slightly over eight percent of East County’s total.
The City has historically participated in the East County Task Force on Homelessness.
In other actions to help the homeless, the Council will have opportunity to award contract for immediate use of Corona Virus Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Funds, approved at a previous Council meeting for assistance on homelessness.
The La Mesa Citizens Task Force on Homelessness presented recommendations to the City Council last month that included:
- Regional Coordination
- Supportive Housing
- Implementation of approaches to address local needs
The City Council approved a two-phase approach
- Immediate use of CDBG funds
- Mobile outreach program
The County of San Diego voted to present the use of Homekey funds to the state and did so accordingly; however they gave the City of La Mesa the opportunity to provide comments at Tuesday’s meeting at the urging of City Manager Greg Humora.
Councilmember Alessio asked staff if La Mesa has any say in this matter other than making a recommendation.
“We are not part of the approval process. The funds are state funds that the county has applied for in partnership with a private developer,” said City Manager Humora, who gave the presentation.
“I think that’s really important for people listening or watching this on tv that whatever the outcome of our meetings is, it’s the Board of Supervisors and the State that have the ultimate say,” said Alessio.
“Just to reiterate, we have no regulatory authority over this,” said Mayor Araposthathis. “If our City Manager had not brought this to us, it could’ve just gone to the front desk for a permit and we wouldn’t have known about it until it began to happen.”
Vice Mayor Weber asked if the city was involved in discussion prior to the submission of the application.
“No, the City was not. We received a communication from the developer in August, I believe it was on August 12, that the developer would be submitting an application to the state, essentially that day, and they were informing us and letting us know that that application had been prepared working with the county and the developer,” Humora told the Council.
“So no one actually reached out to city staff, anyone on city council, nor the mayor, prior to the application being complete and essentially submitted,” Weber recapped.
“We can’t vote on a project but we can vote on how we want to report back to the county,” said Araposthathis.
David Estrella, Director of Housing and Community Development with the Housing and Human Services Agency for the County of San Diego. provided the county portion of the presentation in collaboration with Kelly Somans, Chief of Community Development.
He said that on July 16, the state announced available of funding through Homekey program. The County along with Affirmed Housing would have an opportunity to showcase experience with development. The proposed development would include prioritization of certain units for the City of La Mesa, but did not specify how many.
There would be partnership opportunities with other non-profit community providers. It would have 24 hour security and the county would provide long-term oversight through ongoing compliance monitoring efforts. No funding from the City of La Mesa would be required. The state has s short application window and quick expenditure requirements, so supervisors implemented the Homekey application, which passed initial review, and also approved an emergency rental assistance program in August.
Councilmember Alessio asked if it was the county’s policy to provide services within incorporated cities.
“The county funds a wide variety of programs ranging from supportive services to permanent affordable housing development,” said Estrella. Estrella added, “It’s in line with other county efforts as to provide a level of service for homeless individuals, in this case including the unincorporated area and the City of La Mesa.”
Estrella’s answer was insufficient for some.
“I wasn’t asking if there was alignment with other programs,” snapped Alessio. “I was asking that since the county in your staff report says the goal is to provide in unincorporated areas, why would you choose an incorporated city versus an unincorporated area?”
Estrella replied that the county funds allocated for funds throughout the region and that the application took place under a short-time frame for a program to provide services to the region.
“This is the only application that the county was a co-applicant, in order for a proposal to be well-positioned to receive funding,” Estrella said.
It seemed unclear to the Council why the project was taking place in La Mesa and whether other applications for different areas had been submitted.
Estrella seemed to say, in flowery verbiage, that aside from the applications submitted which were already approved, there were no other applications in place to serve the East County homeless or at-risk population.
“What’s the difference between the vote last week at the County and the vote tomorrow [Tuesday] at the County?” asked Councilmember Bill Baber.
Estrella claimed that the vote last week was to approve submission of a resolution to complete that portion of the application. He clarified that the Tuesday meeting would take place to allow for opportunity for input from the La Mesa City Council.
The action item was only to receive information, but Baber pushed the issue of whether a vote to junk the action would be foreseeable.which in fact did transpire.
“This application that you all submitted on August 13, before we were informed, is basically the application for East County and there can be no changes,” Weber stated. “My final question,” she added pointedly, is “When the County does business with cities or other local jurisdictions, is it common practice for them to not contact the officials or the city leaders or the manager of those particular cities prior to something like an application being submitted?”
Estrella responded by saying that this was an unusual circumstance due to the urgency of the application and the necessity of spending COVID-19 related assistance immediately.
Araposthathis added that the hotel was not on the market, alluding to the inference that someone approached the hotel without speaking first to the city.
Jimmy Silverwood, Executive Vice President with Affirmed Housing proceeded with the presentation on Affirmed Housing, which he said has:
- Developed affordable housing across the state
- Developed 50 communities with nearly 4500 apartments
- Built over 600 supported housing apartments for formerly homeless individuals and family in progress
- Has over 400 supported housing apartments under construction in California
- Set up neighborhood advisory committee for downtown developmen
- Feels this was huge success and something to consider in La Mesa.
He added that the property owner was open to the sale. Siilverwood received an offering memorandum from broker. The property included structural characteristics important when looking at conversions to community housing including a restaurant that can be converted to community space, offices to be converted to case management space and a non-profit service center wnere seven or eight non-profits would operate to provide direct services.
Mayor Araposthathis believes that the data is overwhelming to support this type of project in terms of public good. However, the intention does not always outweigh the outcome.
Five members of the public provided live testimony at the La Mesa Council meeting Monday, while others sent in written remarks.
Mike Jeff, who lives in Heatherwood Apartments directly next to this development, said,
“We’ve seen quite a large impact to the homeless population; my daughter has looked out her window to see two men who were smoking, whether pot nor tobacco and saying ‘Daddy what are these men doing?”
Jeff is concerned about the safety guidelines and the impact it will have on his family.
“I fear that this is just a rash decision that’s going to happen and there is going to be too many unattended consequences,” he said.
Connie Fallace is a resident in the immediate area. “We’ve put a lot of time and money and effort into our home and we want to keep the property value,” she said.
Fallace is a former court reporter who has concerns over drugs. She has dealt with other homeless populations through work and church and has seen direct implications of drugs and fights.
Greg Fallace, Connie’s husband, also spoke.
“I’ve heard a lot of flowery rhetoric…but let me tell you about actually living with these people. I know that most of them are there because of drug abuse and psychological problems,” he said, adding that politicians and developers who were profiting from this were the ones on board. “They’re crapping on the street and throwing trash everywhere.”
Leslie McEwen also lives in the neighborhood.
“When I heard from the contractor that there were no single family homes, that’s not true!” said McEwen.
McEwen said the trolley is a 25 minute walk from that particular location.
“I’m very appalled that you did not give us more notification,” said McEwen. Wwhat’s that gonna do to the cost of my housing? “We should have a say, and most of us say ‘No!’ Thank you very much.”
Many written comments written comment reflected similar sentiments. There were 149 emails that were read by the City Clerk.
The Mayor agreed to cut off comment at midnight and adjourn in the morning. It was imperative that the City of La Mesa relay the message to the County before its meeting at 4 p.m. on September 22 (the following day).
“We’re definitely going to send the packet to forward then to the County of San Diego,” said Mayor Araposthathis who added that to the agenda item.
The City Attorney confirmed that the City could make a decision without hearing all of the public comment.
“With these Zoom meetings, under the Brown Act, it’s unchartered territory,” said the City Attorney who added that anything reasonable would be fair.
The City Clerk had not reviewed or sorted the emails to determine who is in favor and who was against this project.
“We all read these, the majority of concerns, they were not positive toward the project,” said Councilmember Allesio.
The Mayor agreed to reconvene the meeting after a brief recess.
When the meeting resumed, the Mayor decided to read all the names of the people who wrote in as neutral, followed by those in favor and those who opposed. They then selected ten random speakers from each group.
Most comments were in opposition (130 commenters) including blistering commentary from former Mayor of La Mesa Art Madrid.
Araposthathis clarified that those against the project were not opposed to helping the homeless but were opposed to the manner that it was taking place.
The few in support noted benefits of the project.
Michelle Sikes said, “I would like to take this opportunity to voice my support and ask that you please consider the proposal brought forth from Affirmed Housing in relation to the Holiday Inn site. I have worked alongside Affirmed Housing and can attest to the professionalism and care they provide to the properties that they operate.”
“This pandemic has shown us we need long term solutions for our city, not temporary solutions that don’t solve the issue at hand. We should say yes to this proposal to state funds to convert a hotel in La Mesa into new permanent supportive homes. We have a homelessness crisis and we need solutions for permanent homes with services,” said Pia Piscetelli.
Others vehemently rejected the idea. Some expressed the lack of sobriety requirements and lack of oversight as well as an influx of those from surrounding areas.
Janet Haffner said, “I admire the intention on this proposal to fix an ongoing crisis – homelessness in La Mesa – however the good of one population, those who live in apartments, condos, and homes should not be sacrificed for the good of those on the street.”
What was most concerning to many was Councilmember Parent’s behind-the-scenes involvement with the project despite his employer’s relationship with the developer.
“Colin Parent is a failure,” said former Mayor Madrid. “His campaign promise to La Mesa voters was to protect the character and values of community…He’s been an abject failure in honoring any of his pledges. He further deceived La Mesa residents by placing his self-serving political interests and priorities before those benefitting the city or its residents.”
Madrid continued, “…his aggressive promotion of accessory dwelling units, ‘granny flats’ throughout the city, the sale for the development of the Allison Ave parking lot and now grossly misrepresenting documented facts and falsely claiming that La Mesa has a homeless crisis to justify converting the Holiday Inn into a permanent region-wide homeless housing site.”
“The city’s homeless task force is currently addressing this matter in a thoughtful way. Colin’s sole support for the conversion is for the benefit of his friends at Affirmed Housing, not the city or its residents,” former Mayor Madrid concluded.