FULL HOUSE AT EAST COUNTY LEADERSHIP COUNCIL FORUM: IDEAS FOR SOLVING REGION’S BIGGEST ISSUES

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By Miriam Raftery
 
August 1, 2019 (El Cajon) – “We’re not interested in headlines today  We’re interested in the long-term,” George Gastil, founder of the East Count Leadership  Council, told a capacity audience at the El Cajon Library at a July 27th regional issues forum.

Moderator Dana Quittner, past president of the East County Economic Development Council, said of the forum  in the El Cajon Library community room, “It’s a community conversation about things that are important.”
 
All three panelists have worked at multiple levels of government:
 
  • La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent is also executive director and legal counsel for Circulate San Diego, former policy director for the San Diego Housing Commission, and past external director of the California Dept. of Housing and Community Development.
  • El Cajon Councilman Gary Kendrick has served as Vice Mayor, chaired the El Cajon planning commission, and served as board president of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College Governing Board. He holds degrees in business and real estate, has worked as a real estate appraiser, and taught business courses.
  • Helix Water Board member Mark Gracyk has served as reclaimed water manager at the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar and chaired the Prop W bond oversight committee for Lemon Grove’s school district to build the library.

 

Each panelist was first asked to address three big issues:  How to make East County more affordable for residents, how to balance housing and jobs, and how to protect our environment as well as enhancing our quality of life.
 
Gracyk said he’s worked to make government more transparent, moving Helix Water Board meetings to evenings and hopes to get meetings broadcast online in the future.  On affordability, he stated, “It’s not just the cost of housing,” but also the costs of utilities, transportation and water. With San Diego at the end of the water supply pipeline, costs to the district have gone up each year, though the board has tried to minimize rate increases. Long-term, the Pure Water treatment project that several East County communities are funding will provide up to 30% of water from a local source: recycling This assures supply in case of earthquake or drought, he notes. Quittner pointed out this can also help attract biotech employers to East County, since they need water.
 
Kendrick said, “We all have the same goal: safe, affordable housing.”  Demand is high since everyone wants to live in the San Diego area, yet there are federal, state and local challenges. “El Cajon has done some smart growth,” he said, noting that the city has rezoned a triangular area between the trolley,  El Cajon Blvd. and Marshall to allow mixed use, with housing on top and retail on the lower level. Online shopping has reduced demand for retail, he notes.  El Cajon also has the second lowest development fees in the county to encourage more affordable housing construction and has hired an inspector for housing projects. The city encourages tenants to report problems such as rats, which can be done anonymously and it’s illegal for a landlord to evict someone for this.
 
“We hired a housing navigator who has placed 60 homeless people into permanent housing,” Kendrick added. Some were reunited with relatives by being given bus passes, while others were placed in shelter. The East County Transitional Living Center has a program at a ranch for homeless people to “dry out” from alcohol/addiction and jobs training.  “I hired some guys” from the program, said Kendrick, who has also rented rooms to graduates of the program.  “They’re so grateful that someone gives them a chance.” There is also a program to help get homeless children into schools.
 
Smart growth and building housing near the trolley stop helps with the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, part of the climate change plan the city has recently adopted.
 
As for quality of life, the city invested millions of dollars to refurbish the former East County Performing Arts Center reopening in September as the Magnolia Center under management of live nation. “Everything turns to gold under them,” he says. The city also invests in festivals such as American on Main and Hauntfest.  “Poor people aren’t bad,” says Kendrick, noting that El Cajon has a lot of poor people because housing in the city is more affordable than in much of the region.  “These kids can’t afford to go to the Del Mar Fair, but they can go to America on Main Street. We spend $100,000 a year on that and that’s our gift to the people of El Cajon.”
 
Parent said both La Mesa and Circulate San Diego advocate for safe streets, accessible transit and affordable growth.  “Affordability is a big part of what we’re about in East County,” he noted.  “I’m a renter…it’s really expensive, really hard for families to make it,” adding that mortgage costs are also high.” He praised Councilmember Kristine Alessio, noting that although they are of different political parties, they’ve worked together to enact several successful proposals.  He called housing affordability “the challenge of our time.”
 
Parent added that La Mesa has an affordability homes bonus program that’s successful, with 50 units built so far as developers build affordable units to serve the working class families in exchange for incentives such as fee waivers. La Mesa also passed a measure to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units or granny flats, which state research has shown are built for family members 80% of the time He sees two big problems with affordability: not enough housing for low income people and not enough units overall.
 
Sporting a sling on his arm from a bicycle crash, Parent noted that La Mesa is also the first city in East County to adopt Vision Zero, which has a goal of zero pedestrian fatalities.  
 
Both El Cajon and La Mesa have adopted climate action plans to reduce greenhouse gases dramatically. Helix Water District has also taken steps to reduce energy consumption, such as changing tis fleet to clean diesel fuels.  Parent wants to see more development near transit and opportunities for people to work near transit, too. La Mesa has “robust” commercial and residential overlays and is now seeing more market demand to build this.
 
Parent says there are programs to prevent people from reselling properties meant for low-income people as well as some to encourage home ownership, though most public resources are for rentals. Kendrick says El Cajon has approved over 3,000 apartments for conversion to condos to help people achieve the “American dream” of home ownership.  There are deed restriction programs where the city can take a second trust deed with zero payments via a federally funded program that he says has been “very successful.”  
 
Next came audience questions.
 
Several asked about homelessness and shared housing/group homes.
 
Kendrick says El Cajon offers emergency vouchers. “If the police find someone living in the bushes, they are encouraged to get into a program.”
 
Parent said group homes and recovery homes is becoming an issue in La Mesa. Neighbors often don’t want them, but the state makes it hard for cities to deny permits for these. “It’s a challenge we have to embrace,” he observed.
 
Gracyk says Helix has been spending $40,000 to $60,000 a month cleaning out land in El Monte Valley in Lakeside due to homeless people camping in the riverbed, but that the people return right after the cleanup.  “We’re studying this at a committee level,” he said.
 
Someone asked if special districts should be abolished. “No,” Gracyk fired back, but noted that the county has more elected officials per capita in the unincorporated area than in urban areas.  Quittner noted that Ronald Reagan proposed this and former State Senator Joel Anderson considered abolishing special districts too, but both backed off after studies found some very efficient special districts. Kendrick noted he’s sat on some special district boards, such as Heartland Fire and the Metropolitan Water District and it takes considerable time.
 
Another audience member asked how panelists would provide healthcare to the 100,000 East County residents who don’t have any.  Kendrick was the only one who offered a response. He recalled voting to spend money on air conditioning for a community health clinic instead of spending money requested on a park because “people are more important than green grass…Every year we give a free clinic $50,000 to $60,000.”
 
On a question about planting more trees, Parent said, “Street trees are one of the top 10 political issues in La Mesa!”  Planting trees is an important part of the city’s climate action plan, “but we’re not replacing palm trees on Date in the historic district.”
 
Both El Cajon and La Mesa have Tree City USA designations for their tree-planting efforts.
 
Panelists were next asked their views on rent control. Both Kendrick and Parent said they oppose it.
 
Kendrick, who bought his first home by selling comic books, encourages everyone to become a homeowner to avoid being a “slave to a landlord.” But he’s also a landlord himself with several rental units. Instead of rent control, which he says scares off investors and can result in less affordable housing, he prefers subsidies and deed restrictions to help with affordability. “Whenever you subsidize something, you get more of it,” he says.  “What we need are more subsidies for rental housing, but don’t mess with the market.”
 
Parent agreed that there are “better ways to address affordable housing” adding, “I’m more comfortable with anti-gouging rules working their way through the state Legislature.”
 
Ray Lutz with Citizens Oversight asked about removing fluoride from drinking water.  Gracyk said these are statewide regulations but that Helix uses sodium fluoride, not silicon fluoride which is made from a waste product. He says he’s discussed this with Assemblymember Shirley Weber but that this is “not on the radar at the state level. What is on the radar up there is water affordability and access to clean water.”
 
Lemon Grove Councilwoman Jennifer Mendoza, who was in the audience, asked about short-term rentals such as AirBnB. Parent said La Mesa only has a few and that the city council has received zero complaints. He believes this should be balanced in favor of property owners, but added that he could envision reaching a different decision in a different jurisdiction such as the city of San Diego, which has 85,000 units and significant problems. Lemon Grove Councilman Jerry Jones chimed in that his city’s ordinance requires that a property owner live on the premises if they are renting out a room as a short-term AirBnB type rental or an accessory dwelling unit “If this is extra income for folks, you really don’t want to end that,” he said.
 
Another audience member said she is working on ideas to help Lemon Grove, a city of limited financial means, have a thriving downtown.
 
Kendrick noted that El Cajon has a business improvement district that merchants pay to support, and the district contracts with formerly homeless people to clean up the area.  He added that the city has events such a car shows and outdoor concerts to bring people into downtown. The city also made changes to wallow sidewalk cafes for outdoor dining, despite objections that this might make it harder for people to walk on sidewalks.
 
Parent said of La Mesa, “We have a great history, with a couple of walkable blocks downtown built before the age of motor vehicles. “But a lot of newer cities like Lemon Grove are more car friendly.”  La Mesa also spent money on streetscape improvements. By contrast, he advised, “Lemon Grove will need to change land uses and rezone some properties.”  La Mesa also encourages more events such as Oktoberfest and recently voted to keep a farmer’s market downtown.
 
La Mesa Councilmember Alessio, in the audience, added, “We have a parking district.”  She praised Councilmembers Bill Baber and Colin Parent for putting together a proposal to use parking meter money to subsidize events, which she hopes the full council will support. 
 
Councilman Jones fro Lemon Grove mentioned that the state has taken away redevelopment funds, which makes it more difficult to revitalize civic areas.
 
Learn more about the East County Leadership Council, a nonprofit 501c3 organization focused on key policy issues in San Diego’s East County, at their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/East-county-Leadership-Council-272090386893824.