Jan. 15 2014 10:16 AM

First it was the Barrio Logan plan; now it's the housing fee

A signature gatherer wearing a deceptive slogan tries to avoid getting her picture taken at Albertson’s in North Park.
Photo by David Rolland

It's odd to see leaders in San Diego's business community thrashing about as they react to legislative policies they don't like. After all, this crew has gotten pretty much everything it's wanted since the beginning of time. Lately, the Democratic-majority City Council has dealt these folks some setbacks, and their response has been to lie to voters in order to compel them to overturn the policies at the ballot box.

The first of the recent policies was an update to the Barrio Logan Community Plan, and several times on this page, we've laid out the pattern of lies making up the attempt to overturn it. Now comes what used to be called the "linkage fee" and is now called the "workforce housing offset." The lying in the campaign against the housing fee is not quite as brazen as it has been in the campaign against the Barrio Logan plan, but the goal is deception nonetheless.

A group calling itself the Jobs Coalition is going around referring to the housing fee as a "jobs tax." As the City Attorney's office made clear to the City Council in an Oct. 25, 2013 memo, the fee is not a tax. It's a fee. Now, we understand that some people can argue that a fee is like a tax, in that it's something that's paid to the government. But we believe that what the Jobs Coalition wants you to think when you hear "tax" is that it might be something that you'll have to pay, in addition to all your other crushing bills. Generally speaking, "tax" = "bad" these days, and they're counting on a Pavlovian response from a frothing public. They also want you to think that the City Council is against job creation.

Why the deception? Because polls indicate that the public supports programs that help needy people. And that's what the workforce-housing offset is.

Here's the gist: Commercial development creates jobs, and some of those jobs require employees to work for low or very low incomes. San Diego, officially, has an affordable-housing crisis, meaning the supply of housing that's affordable to people with low and very low incomes doesn't come close to meeting the demand. So, the idea is that we can help increase the supply by asking developers of certain kinds of new commercial buildings to chip in to a fund—because those projects increase the demand.

This is not a new idea. It's no different from fees that developers pay in order to help finance schools, parks and road improvements: New growth creates demand for public amenities. In this case, that amenity happens to be low-cost housing. The goal is to prevent even more homelessness than already exists and to discourage low-wage workers from having to drive long distances—if they can even afford cars—from far-flung affordable communities to their jobs in San Diego, increasing air pollution.

And, actually, the housing-fee program itself has existed in San Diego since 1990. It was supposed to be raised regularly in order to keep pace with the cost of building, but it was reduced in 1996 back to 1990 levels and hasn't been increased since. All the City Council did in November was raise the fee so that it comports with today's economy.

The increased fee is still lower than developers' proportional impact on the housing market, the memo from the City Attorney's office says. And the revenue from the fee alone doesn't come close to solving the problem; it just helps a little bit. Much more revenue is still needed from other sources.

There's plenty of room for debate over whether the workforce-housing offset is a good way to chip away at the problem, and that debate played out, in public and behind closed doors, before the City Council—the representative body we elect to make these decisions—voted.

That debate will likely have to play out again, unfortunately, and the Jobs Coalition, led by former Mayor Jerry Sanders, will do everything it can to make sure voters don't understand what's really going on.

Why? Because it wants to maximize profits for its member businesses and leave low-wage workers out in the cold.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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