By Anna Daniels
Seventeen hundred dollars. Seventeen hundred dollars has become the standard monthly rent for a two bedroom apartment in City Heights. Over the past six months many residents who were paying around fourteen hundred dollars a month for a two bedroom apartment saw their monthly rents suddenly increase– by hundreds of dollars.
The increase in rents does not reflect a sudden investment by the property owners in additional amenities associated with gentrification. Property owners are raising the rent simply because they can. It’s the same housing stock, sometimes poorly maintained, at rental prices that are out of reach in a community with an average household income of thirty-three thousand dollars per year.
City Heights residents are being displaced, not by gentrification efforts in one of San Diego’s last remaining affordable neighborhoods, but by let’s call it for what it is–opportunism compounded by old fashioned greed. The human toll of our free market has been brutal. On the most extreme margin, some residents whose monthly social security checks, other public support or paychecks can’t be stretched any further, have ended up in the streets and canyons of City Heights.
Families stay crowded in less expensive one bedroom apartments, often with bunk beds for the kids in the living room. For those suddenly hit with an additional three thousand dollars a year increase in rent it has meant a white knuckle search for something more affordable.
For those lucky enough to find something comparable to their old rent, there is still the financial burden of coming up with a deposit and first month rent. That deposit of an additional five hundred or more dollars is a financial crisis for people simply struggling to make ends meet. It often requires borrowing money from payday lenders in the area, which is a descent into the pits of compound interest hell for the working poor.
One family on the block recently moved to the South Bay, even though the mother’s job is in Rancho Bernardo. She told me that it was the only place where she could quickly find something affordable for her family.
One of the most dismaying aspects of the rent increases is that it has allowed slumlords to continue to operate with impunity–at full market rate. The one slum apartment complex on 45th Street provides substandard housing to often desperate people. One apartment operated as a mini-dorm for a while, then as a possibly unlicensed group home for the frail elderly. It most recently served as the first housing for newly relocated non-English speaking refugees.
Tenants have told me of backed up toilets, broken windows and rats. These apartments have been the site of criminal activity. The good tenants leave within six months. My refugee neighbors were paying seventeen hundred dollars a month rent. They moved out this past weekend. They were good neighbors.
Let them move to El Cajon!
The anticipated response to what I have described is that we have not unleashed the power of the market, that this is a text book case of supply and demand. Regulations and uncertainty supposedly fetter the private sector from addressing the critical need for housing.
What the private sector wants to develop and build, of course, is market rate housing. Market rate housing, which is anticipated to keep increasing in terms of rental costs, does not address the need for affordable housing throughout the city and in those communities like City Heights which are currently home to the poorest households.
The private sector tells us in every way imaginable that they really really don’t want to build affordable housing. We shovel public dollars their way and continue to be told that it still doesn’t pencil out for them. The theory goes that by building more and more market rate housing more affordable housing will (eventually) occur when the supply side has been saturated and the demand has dropped.
It was jaw dropping to read the following quote about high end rents of $3,549 to $7,475 a month from our publicly subsidized San Diego Housing Commission whose mission is to “provide affordable, safe and quality homes for low- and moderate-income families and individuals in the City of San Diego.”
San Diego renters may be tempted to panic at the prices of high-end apartments but experts say it will take the pressure off the competitive rental market, which has seen rents increase nearly 3 percent year-over-year and vacancy plummet to 2.46 percent.
Debbie Ruane, senior vice president of the San Diego Housing Commission, said the more apartments that are available to rent, the better — even if they are the high-end downtown variety.
“We think that any type of supply contribution is good right now,” she said. “We’re happy to see cranes in the sky and it is important to add housing where the work is . . . downtown is where the services are and the transit is. It’s refreshing to see construction moving again.”
Although City Heights is a community of renters as opposed to home owners, a politically active and vocal segment of the population here opposes additional high density affordable housing, preferring market rate housing and attendant gentrification. A few people have told me that they support the displacement of current residents and that market rate housing will bring in a better class of people.
I ask people expressing those sentiments “Where are the people supposed to go who can no longer afford the rent here?” My question is always met with a shrug. Some respond “El Cajon”. The individual situation of a displaced person does not merit further thought.
Waiting for the white tea fragrance
While we wait in City Heights for affordable housing to trickle down upon us, we are refreshed, to use Debbie Ruane of the Housing Commission’s term, by imagining these places where we are told affordability begins:
A white tea fragrance fills the air in the lobby of Broadstone Balboa Park.
The low light from antique light bulbs illuminates a rolling “railroad” library, fine handmade furniture, various white flowers displayed throughout and elevators adorned by trestles built to resemble San Diego’s suspension bridges.
Four families in my immediate area have found themselves unable to afford their current rents in the past two months. Three of them have found less expensive housing in other parts of City Heights East. The vacant slum apartment on the corner has a for rent sign. It is unclear at this time whether Code Compliance will open a case.
A whiff of something foul lingers in the air.