By Alberto Garcia
A proposal by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer could turn a local South Bay motel into a temporary housing complex for homeless low-level misdemeanor violators.
This Wednesday, the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee voted to approve a plan for the City to purchase a Super 8 Motel on Palm Avenue near Imperial Beach and convert it into a transitional housing complex.
The motel could house up to 84 low-level offenders, consistent with the City’s San Diego Misdemeanants At-Risk Track (SMART) Program that seeks to provide housing, case management, job training, and other supportive services to homeless low-level misdemeanor offenders.
The SMART program was created to help deal with the influx of offenders that avoid prison time under the State law changes approved by Prop 47, which lowered many non-violent theft and drug charges from felonies to misdemeanors in an attempt to reduce prison overcrowding.
SMART is a collaborative effort between the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, the San Diego Police Department, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the San Diego County Office of the Public Defender, the County of San Diego Behavioral Health Services Department, Family Health Centers of San Diego, and the San Diego Second Chance Program.
Mayor Faulconer proposed purchasing the motel with $6.65 million in funds the City already has on hand, and using another $4.5 million to convert it into housing units. The City has applied for a $3 million annual grant to pay for the ongoing costs of operating the housing complex.
But, last month, San Diego Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the area where the motel sits, fired off a letter to the California Coastal Commission asking whether the proposal would violate State laws pertaining to land uses near the coast, as well as the Coastal Commission’s goal of maintain affordable hotels and motels near beaches for visitor access.
Alvarez’s May 30 letter also stated that the Mayor and the City failed to hold any public meetings in the area before proposing the conversion of the local motel.
“Residents of the Otay Mesa-Nestor community have expressed concerns to my office about the potential impacts this project will have on public access to the coast, and the failure by the Mayor and the City to conduct any public outreach to the Otay Mesa-Nestor community, the neighboring City of Imperial Beach, and any other stakeholders from the South Bay region,” Councilman Alvarez’s letter states.
In response to the letter from Alvarez, the Coastal Commission issued a letter on June 2, outlining its continued support for affordable hotels and motels near the coast, including the Southern edge of San Diego Bay. The letter warned that removing existing motel rooms could result in the City of San Diego having to replace those rooms with similarly-priced new ones. If the City would have to replace the motel rooms, the transitional housing project would seem to be unfeasible.
“When such projects are proposed, the Commission has typically required that when existing overnight lower or moderate cost accommodations are removed, the inventory be replaced with units that are of comparable cost and recreational value to the public as the existing units being removed,” the letter states.
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott issued a memo before the Committee meeting to analyze the steps the project would have to take within the City’s development permitting process, but her memo did not deal with the issues raised by the Coastal Commission.
During the Council committee meeting, Council member Chris Cate expressed interest in expanding the program to other parts of San Diego, but property values made that much more difficult than in the South Bay.
The proposal will come before the full City Council for a vote. If approved, the project would be appealable to the State Coastal Commission.