Increasing home prices keep employees on road longer

In a region where the median priced home exceeds $490,000, owning a home in the San Diego area can often be out of reach for many working families. The situation leaves many employees across the region in a predicament. If they choose to live in the city, it means spending a disproportionate share of their income on housing and leaving little for other needs. If they move to outlying areas in search of more affordable housing, they risk spending hours each day on the region's highways and watch as their quality of life suffers.

The dilemma, however, is one employers must also confront. When recruiting employees to the region, businesses must allay job candidates' concerns about high housing costs, and ensure existing workers' performance doesn't suffer under the grind of long commutes.

To ease crowding on highways and build much needed affordable housing, California voters wisely approved two ballot measures last November: propositions 1B and 1C. These measures will steer hundreds of millions of dollars to the region, and hopefully improve the lives of families and profits of employers across the state.

The San Diego region has already secured $452 million under Proposition 1B for three important road-construction projects. They will be used to:

* Extend high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-805 between Mira Mesa Blvd. and the I-5/I-805 merge;

* Construct 8 miles of carpool lanes on I-15 from Highway 163 to state Route 56; and

* Develop HOV lanes on I-805 from E Street in Chula Vista to Highway 54.

San Diego will also receive funds to expand public transportation, control vehicle emissions, upgrade the trolley, create bus rapid transit on I-15 and I-805, and start Coaster service between Escondido and Oceanside.

The new road construction should alleviate some of the region's traffic hotspots, and improve the flow of goods and services -- something positive for commuters and a company's bottom line.

Unfortunately, many of these infrastructure improvements alone do not address the cause for people living farther from their jobs: the lack of affordable housing in the area. In a region where only 9 percent of households could afford a median priced home in 2005, it is a travesty when families cannot afford to live in the communities in which they work. When families must opt for housing farther from their jobs it only further strains the transportation system, whether it is highways, the Coaster, trolley or buses.

According to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the region's inventory of rent-restricted affordable homes is 26,000 units, with approximately 52,000 households in need. SANDAG estimates an additional 75,000 households are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing, a troubling threshold in any region.

Some of this demand will be met through Proposition 1C, which state voters passed in November 2006. The measure authorizes $2.85 billion statewide to existing affordable housing programs, including "urban infill" and transit-oriented housing developments. "Urban infill" describes the often-small parcels of vacant land that are the only remaining tracts on which to build housing in cities. Statewide, Proposition 1C provides $625 million to low- and moderate-income homebuyers in the form of low-interest loans or grants, and $285 million to build homeless shelters and housing for farm workers.

Local housing experts expect the San Diego region to receive 8 percent, or $228 million, from the statewide housing bond measure -- the same amount received from the 2002 statewide affordable housing bond. The earlier measure provided funding for everything from creating multifamily rental properties for lower income households, to supportive housing for those who are homeless and disabled. Those popular programs are expected to be re-funded as Proposition 1C is implemented.

These new housing funds will only go so far in a region as expensive as San Diego, but the plan is for them to leverage three times as much funding toward affordable housing projects in the region. In combination with the transportation bond, we may slowly begin to address the supply of affordable housing in San Diego, and reduce the transportation costs of commuters. In turn, workers can spend more time with their families and companies may reap higher returns from improved employee morale and higher productivity.

State Sen. Kehoe, D-San Diego, represents the 39th District. Send comments to Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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