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Desperately seeking affordable housing in Vista

As in most of San Diego County, it's not easy to find affordable housing in Vista. Homes in Vista are slightly more affordable than in some North County cities such as Encinitas and Solana Beach, but they are still too expensive for families earning only the county's annual median income of $60,100 for a family of four, said Rebecca Davis of the San Diego Association of Governments, the region's primary planning agency.

The city of Vista is well aware of the need for more affordable housing.

"It's a major issue for us, just like it is for all the other cities," said Vista Mayor Ed Estes Jr.

The lack of adequate affordable housing frustrates Judy Ritter, Vista's mayor pro tem, who serves on Sandag's Regional Housing Task Force and worries about service workers who can't afford to live in the city in which they work.

"We need housing for our work force," she said. "What I'm thinking about is the secretaries or the single mothers ... or the service workers who work at Burger King or the dry cleaners."

San Diego County is the ninth least-affordable county in the United States, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Only 22 percent of the homes sold in 2001 in the county would be deemed "affordable" to families making the median income.

An often-used rule of thumb for figuring out how much one can afford to pay for a house is multiplying annual income times three. That only adds up to $180,000, well below the average resale price of a single-family home in Vista, which was $248,000 in Dec. 2001.

"That's probably out of reach" for many would-be homebuyers in Vista and the rest of San Diego County, Davis said.

California state law mandates that cities work toward affordable housing goals. Sandag worked with Vista city officials to create their city's current five-year goal for 1999-2004, which is to make 510 affordable housing units available.

"So far, we've created 141 housing opportunities," Estes said.

The 510 affordable housing units can be comprised of any of four types: new housing, mobile home park units, rehabilitated housing and shared housing.

"The goal is to have people living in decent, safe and sanitary housing and not increasing their housing costs," said Lynn Brown, Vista's housing program manager.

Vista Manor Mobile Home Park is home to 72 units, which are restricted to people with an income at or below 80 percent of the median family income adjusted for family size. Another 17 units are rehabilitated housing units. The city gives interest-free financial assistance to people who own and live in their own single-family homes to fix up their homes, which may be in blighted areas.

Vista contracts with Lifeline Community Services to provide shared housing opportunities, and 36 have been created toward the five-year goal.

Vista does have a homeownership program for moderate-income people who may still need assistance but not qualify for the income requirements of the affordable housing initiative.

Some buyers can qualify for down payment assistance, while others can apply for the mortgage credit certificate program, which gives them a credit on their federal income tax return. However, the state allocates money for such programs, and the funding has been decreasing lately so only six homebuyers were aided under this program last year, Brown said.

Although there are still challenges to be met, Vista has been doing pretty well in working to provide affordable housing in recent years, according to Sandag. Its housing task force reported last fall that only four North County cities exceeded their affordable housing goals between 1991-1999. Vista was one of them, along with Oceanside, San Marcos and Escondido.

But some people wish Vista could do more to ease the housing crisis within its boundaries.

The city has a zero percent vacancy rate for affordable housing, said Chris Megison, executive director of the nonprofit North County Solutions for Change, and yet there is an increasing need for such housing.

The recent downturn in the economy just made matters worse for many families, he added. The North County Solutions for Change turned down 26 families in January because there was no room in the organization's housing program.

Vista will have to be creative, however, when it comes to future affordable housing, Ritter said.

The city, unlike neighboring cities like Oceanside and San Marcos, doesn't have much available land on which to build new housing units. Oceanside is right against one border, while Carlsbad is directly across another border.

"They're right on top of us, so the only room we have to put in housing is for infill housing" or rehabilitated areas, Ritter said.

Vista, like other cities in the same situation, will also have to continue trying to increase affordable housing while minimizing the impact on city services, Estes said. If the city's population increases as affordable housing opportunities grow, the city will have to provide more vital services.

"You need to give the city's transportation dollars and infrastructure dollars a bump," he said.

Larson is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.

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