For nearly 24 years, Azalea Park has successfully waged a war on urban decay by extending a welcome to LGBTQ homebuyers.
“I look around and see amazing things that gays and lesbians have done with their properties,” said Linda Pennington, a longtime neighborhood activist. “It was just what we needed.”
Pennington was among the community leaders who launched an unusual marketing campaign in 1993 by entering a float in Hillcrest’s 1993 Pride Parade. It was decorated with banners that said “welcome gays” and “canyon homes under $100,000.”
Azalea Park is a collection of about 900 houses and apartments within City Heights, a mile and a half east of Balboa Park. Built along winding canyons, most of the homes were constructed from the 1920s through the 1950s. By the time Pennington and her neighbors began their outreach to the LGBTQ community, many of the houses had fallen into serious disrepair. Graffiti and abandoned cars were commonplace.
Pennington hoped that LGBTQ people could be persuaded to buy and improve deteriorating homes and that these efforts would trigger a neighborhood revival. A former resident of Hillcrest, she had seen how that neighborhood had been greatly improved by an influx of LGBTQ homeowners. Efforts to introduce Azalea Park to the LGBTQ community have continued over the years.
About three years into the outreach effort, Karen Bucey was in a Hillcrest bookstore when she found a flyer advertising the low home prices and the supportive attitude in Azalea Park. Bucey ended up purchasing a home that had been repossessed. Although the home was infested with insects and badly in need of repair, it was structurally sound, and given the low price—$89,500—she didn’t mind the need for home improvements.
Photo by Torrey Bailey
“Lots of people walked through and shook their heads, but I wasn’t scared of work,” said Bucey, who is now project manager for the City of San Diego. “I decided this was a community that I could make a start in.”
Azalea Park’s favorable attitude toward LGBTQ people was unusual in the mid- 1990s, Bucey recalled.
“The environment was different than it is today,” she said. “It was still questionable whether you could be in certain communities with persons of the same gender and be safe.”
Pennington recalls that dozens of LGBTQ people began moving to Azalea Park. Today there is much less blight and a stronger sense of community. Residential lots have been cleared of brush and debris. The abandoned cars have been towed away.
Jim Martin, a landscape designer, and his partner bought a home in the community in 2010. They had learned about the LGBTQ outreach while attending a Pride Parade in Hillcrest.
“They had a banner that said ‘Won’t you be our neighbor?’” Martin recalled.
The couple had been looking for a condominium in the North Park area. Their real estate agent told them they should check out homes in Azalea Park. They chose a two-bedroom bungalow that had been built in 1954.
Although it was “in pretty bad shape,” the $200,000 price tag was right, Martin said. The couple moved in and began making renovations. Since 2010, the home has doubled in value.
“We never thought in San Diego that we’d have a house with a yard,” Martin said. “It was important to us.”
Trish Hoffman, a realtor and longtime Azalea Park resident, calls the LGBTQ outreach “a wonderful success story.” In addition to improving homes, gay and lesbian residents became involved with the local neighborhood association and took part in cleanup drives. Attracted by the improvements, people from all walks of life began buying and repairing homes in Azalea Park.
“It has become a neighborhood that is welcoming to everybody,” Hoffman said.
Among Azalea Park’s 900 homes, Pennington estimates that there are about 100 LGBTQ households. Just as there was no opposition to the influx of LGBT people, there has been no opposition to the home improvements that have raised property values, Hoffman said. Perhaps that’s because the community remains affordable by San Diego standards.
Recently, home prices have ranged from $355,000 for a two-bedroom, one bathroom house to $480,000 for a four-bedroom, twobathroom home. Rents also have remained comparatively affordable.
“Have some of the prices gone up?” Hoffman asked. “Yes. Are people upset? Quite the opposite. It remains an affordable place and a nice, safe community.”
Catherine A. Rodman is the director and supervising attorney of Affordable Housing Advocates, a nonprofit legal services project that works on housing issues in San Diego County. She said the organization had an office in City Heights, the community surrounding Azalea Park, from October 2010 until mid-January of this year. During that time, no renters complained to the organization about being priced out of Azalea Park’s rental market.
“We didn’t have any tenants come into our office who were being displaced,” she said.
However, Matthew Jumper, who is board president of San Diego Housing Federation, said while he has heard of no problems arising from Azalea Park’s LGBTQ outreach, he added that the gentrification of older communities typically reduces affordable housing.
“It’s a dual-edged sword, there is no doubt about it,” Jumper said. “Usually when properties are improved, values go up. That is good in general. However, the downside is you do force some people out. People of limited means often look to other neighborhoods.”
Azalea Park is a part of City Heights, which is a common destination for people who immigrate to the U.S. Communities that have a mixture of cultures generally are accepting of LGBTQ households, said Jenn T. Grace, a business strategist who specializes in LGBTQ issues.
LGBTQ people “are specifically looking for diversity,” she said. “They recognize that when they are in diverse communities it will be better for them.”
Glen Brodowsky, a professor of marketing at California State University San Marcos, has observed Azalea Park’s LGBTQ outreach since it began. He said he knows of no other community in the U.S. that has marketed itself so openly to gays and lesbians. The neighborhood has been able to attract this demographic without discriminating against other groups or making anyone feel unwelcome, he added.
“I think it was a brilliant move,” Brodowsky said. “It was a win for the neighborhood. It was a win for the LGBT community.”