Lawsuit against S.D. over housing, poverty near trial

Seven plaintiffs, all residents, say city policies violate state, federal laws and wrongly concentrate low-income housing

By Jeff McDonald

A lawsuit alleging that San Diego city officials worsened generational poverty by concentrating low-income housing in poorer neighborhoods for decades now appears likely to go to trial.

U.S. District Court Judge Jinsook Ohta declined to dismiss the complaint following a pair of hearings in August and October, although the case has been pared back since it was filed more than three years ago.

Brought by a group of seven women from various neighborhoods in Southeast San Diego, the lawsuit accuses the city of violating state and federal laws by directing a disproportionate amount of low-income housing to their neighborhoods.

“No legitimate purpose is served by concentrating poverty in these low-income areas,” the plaintiffs say in their third amended complaint.

“Rather, keeping the low-income housing out of the non-affected communities feeds to the will of those with higher incomes and the resulting ability to influence politics through their wealth,” they add.

The lawsuit was initially filed in 2019 against the city, the San Diego Housing Commission and San Diego County.

The original complaint was amended three times after legal challenges by defendants. The county was dismissed from the case two years ago, and the city housing commission was excused this past month.

“The city’s housing policies have caused a disproportionate amount of low-income housing in the ‘affected communities’ when compared to predominantly White communities,” said attorney Elijah Gaglio, who represents the plaintiffs.

“As a result, the affected communities are unable to obtain the same type of employment and economic opportunities as other predominantly White San Diego communities,” he said.

Leslie Wolf Branscomb, a spokesperson for City Attorney Mara Elliott, declined to comment on the case. But in a recent court filing, lawyers representing the city argued that the complaint lacks merit and should be dismissed.

“Pointing to cumulative effects of discretionary decision-making over a multi-year period is not sufficient, and the plaintiff must demonstrate that the statistical disparity is caused by the defendant’s policy or policies, rather than by other factors,” they wrote.

“The city is trying to address the significant housing crisis by making it easier to build affordable housing,” the filing added. “The city’s policies allow for greater density throughout the city to facilitate building of low-income or affordable housing.”

The suit was brought by Patrice Baker, Gloria Cooper, Leslie Dudley, Letitia Flynn, Kathleen MacLeod, Eileen Osborne and Khalada Salaam-Alaji. All of the plaintiffs are women of color who have lived in San Diego for decades and are current or retired professionals, educators or community volunteers.

According to the lawsuit, policies adopted by the city over many years led to a generations-long illegal concentration of poverty throughout Southeast San Diego.

The practices imposed by city officials denied residents opportunities in education, business and local amenities like national brand grocery stores in their neighborhoods, the plaintiffs assert.

Now the complaint moves into the legal process known as discovery, when lawyers for both sides in the dispute can issue subpoenas for documents and schedule depositions of witnesses and others.

“For the reasons stated on the record at the oral argument on Oct. 5, 2022, the court grants in part and denies in part the city defendants’ motion to dismiss,” the judge ruled. “Plaintiff’s (claim) based on equal protection is denied. City defendants’ motion to dismiss is otherwise denied.”

Specifically, the lawsuit is asking the court to declare that the city’s policies and practices have illegally perpetuated racial segregation and wrongly clustered projects that receive tax credits for low-income housing in poor neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs also allege that city officials violated their own policy as well as state and federal fair-housing laws by approving community planning processes that incentivized developers to build in lower-income sections of the city.

In addition to the declarations, plaintiffs want the judge to issue a moratorium on building permits for extremely low, very-low and low-income developments in the affected communities.

The lawsuit also seeks to stop the city from deferring development fees for builders in the poorer neighborhoods. Plaintiffs say the deferrals improperly motivate developers to build in their communities rather than across the city.

They also want the court to require the city to start producing an annual report identifying all affordable housing being built in San Diego. The analysis would be presented to local planning groups.

The plaintiffs say the city has wrongly promoted low- and extremely low-income housing in neighborhoods like Encanto, Mt. Hope and other southeast communities.

They also accuse city planners of streamlining construction applications and adopting other policies making it more likely that developers would build low-income projects in poorer areas.

“Unsurprisingly, the San Diego neighborhoods that have fallen prey to defendants’ concentration of poverty are communities that are predominantly minorities that do not have access to life-changing opportunities such as quality education and high-paying careers,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit cites a 2018 annual housing report that includes eight adopted community plans and two amendments that called for almost 30,000 more residential units to be built.

Two-thirds of those units were planned for the so-called affected communities of Encanto, San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, Chollas Triangle and Southeast San Diego, the suit added.

Under city housing practices, almost twice as many low-income units have been built in neighborhoods that are home to people of color as have been built in predominantly White areas, the lawsuit asserts.

The City Attorney’s Office argued in a motion supporting its dismissal request that the lawsuit wrongly failed to mention other, more affluent neighborhoods from the long-term planning efforts.

San Diego lawyers also said it was not clear how policies that boost density and streamline permitting violate fair-housing rules or fail to serve the public interest.

“Indeed, plaintiffs’ lawsuit, which calls for a moratorium on all affordable housing units in the affected communities which need it the most, is a far greater impediment than the city’s legitimate efforts to address the lack of housing in the region,” they wrote.

No trial date has been scheduled.