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East County has lowest prices, smallest share of affordable-housing development

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Affordable-housing development in East County has been modest lately. The region's four municipalities -- which were allocated the smallest share of low- and very-low income units in the San Diego Association of Governments' recent regional housing needs assessment -- boast several affordable-housing projects, but significantly fewer than other cities in the county.

East County continues to offer homebuyers the lowest priced single-family and condominium options in San Diego County, with median resale prices of $500,000 and $329,500, respectively, as of June.

Since the region is largely built out, urban infill and redevelopment has been the focus for cities looking to increase their stock of affordable housing.

In La Mesa, the Grossmont Trolley Station redevelopment project will include more than 500 apartment units, about 70 of which may be reserved for low-income renters, according to Patricia Rutledge, program specialist in the city's Department of Community Development.

The housing project, developed by Fairfield Development LLC, is still in the environmental review period, Rutledge said, and will likely come before the City Council in September. The mixed-use, transit-oriented development will also include significant retail and commercial space.

The trolley station is located within the larger project area of La Mesa's Redevelopment Agency, which has planned renovations around the city's transit lines. The Metropolitan Transit System's Green trolley line, which opened in July, now connects the Grossmont station to San Diego State University, Qualcomm Stadium, Mission Valley Center and Old Town.

In El Cajon, there has been little recent construction of low-income housing. However, the city is considering ways to increase residential density in its downtown revitalization plans, according to Jim Yerdon, a senior management analyst in the city's Redevelopment and Housing Division.

State law mandates that 15 percent of all units built within city redevelopment areas be made affordable to low- and moderate-income homebuyers, and that 20 percent of all annual redevelopment tax increment funds go toward creating additional low- and moderate-income housing.

Increasing density, while costly, is the only development option for built-out cities like El Cajon, Yerdon said.

"We don't have much vacant land -- we don't have that luxury," he said. "The cost of acquiring buildings, relocating existing residents and demolishing buildings is high."

Nonetheless, the city has plans for eight affordable housing units on Wisconsin Avenue and 20 to 25 mixed-income units in the downtown area, for sale by spring 2007.

The city recently revamped its first-time homebuyer assistance program to help renters access the existing stock of single- and multi-family homes. It offers zero-interest loans that are capped in proportion to home prices, allowing low-income buyers to borrow up to 50 percent of a home's cost for down payment.

While there are no affordable-designated projects in the pipeline in Lemon Grove, the residential infill projects currently under review will likely lower the cost of housing in the city, according to City Manager Graham Mitchell.

"If you take economics 101, you see that supply and demand dictate price," Mitchell said. "If there's more supply, it helps with the cost."

Lemon Grove's lower land values are attractive to developers in light of the county's rising housing costs, according to Mitchell.

"We're probably going to build more housing in the next five years than we have in the last 20," he said.

The city, which has no inclusionary housing policy that requires developers to build low-income units, is also considering downtown redevelopment options that would by state law necessitate affordable offerings.

Santee has seen a similar lack of activity in low-income housing development. The city's most recent designated project, the 133-unit Laurel Park Senior Apartments, was completed in late 2004.

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