Density is a dirty word in Poway these days, especially when it means building housing complexes for lower-income people in a city that prides itself as being a slow-growing community of pricey rural homes.
Citizen planners who mapped out Poway’s future after its incorporation in 1980 created a rural community with homes on huge lots and a revenue-producing industrial park hidden in the hills. They included just enough commercial area to serve the citizens and reserved the rest for gracious homes, horse trails, parks and plenty of elbow room.
“A City in the Country” is Poway’s motto. Keeping it that way--free of the stress of traffic congestion, big-city crime, air pollution and noise--is the aim of Poway leaders.
There has been little room for the less affluent in bucolic Poway. In fact, the city boasts the highest median family income of the 18 cities in San Diego County. Poway’s median income was about $46,000 in 1987, the most current figure available from the San Diego Assn. of Governments.
But now, city officials and many residents fear the community’s rural identity is threatened because state housing officials have a new mandate affecting Poway and every other city in California: Each community must make room for its fair share of “affordable housing” for moderate-, low- and very low-income families. The penalties for failure to meet the state edict are stiff.
Caught in the middle between the wish of residents to keep their rural lifestyle and the demand of the state to provide affordable housing, the city is reluctantly revamping its general plan to include high-density housing affordable to moderate-, low- and very low-income families. That plan goes to the City Council for consideration on Tuesday.
“Adding any housing units, affordable or not, is not popular in Poway,” City Atty. Steve Eckis explained.
The state has told Poway it should provide 2,163 housing units as its share of the region’s expected growth in the coming five years, Eckis said. Most of those dwellings would be for very-low-income families, low-income families and moderate-income families, according to the state formula.
By definition, in 1991 figures, a very low-income family of four people would earn a maximum of $20,550 annually, low-income up to $33,050 a year, and moderate-income $49,550.
For nearly a year, citizen volunteers on the Poway Redevelopment and Housing Advisory Committee have been working on ways to accommodate the growth that the community does not want but state law mandates.
“These state regulations are a bunch of hokum,” fumed Jerry Hargarten, an outspoken member of the Poway Civic Assn. “They were born out of a happy marriage between the building industry and the social activist lobby in the Legislature. There’s something there for both sides of the aisle.
“How can those politicians in Sacramento know what’s best for us here in Poway?”
However, Poway’s lack of enthusiasm for greater numbers of units is criticized by Catherine Rodman, attorney for the Legal Aid Society.
She said less than 1% of Poway’s housing is within the reach of the working poor, although the city’s previous housing plan pledged to provide 543 affordable units by 1985. City officials say that 262 such units have been built, but Rodman disputes that assertion.
“That’s a direct result of city’s exclusionary policies, which have restricted residence to those who earn less than 80% of (the county’s) median income,” she said. “The fact is that the people who work in Poway can’t afford to live there.”
Rodman contends that it is in Poway’s best interests to provide affordable housing for all.
“It’s not only the legal, moral and ethical thing to do, it’s the realistic thing to do, too. Without nearby affordable housing for their employees, businesses will relocate to a place where their workers can live on what they earn. Poway could become a ghost city, a bedroom community where the children of its present homeowners can’t afford to live,” Rodman said.
Like them or not, Eckis stressed that state housing guidelines must be followed.
The penalties, which have already been imposed on several California cities, include loss of local planning and zoning powers until the violation is remedied, he said. “In other words, they could shut us down, stop all building within the city,” Eckis said.
Poway Mayor Jan Goldsmith frowns as he ponders the problem.
As an attorney, Goldsmith knows that the community must conform to the state law requiring the city to increase its per acre unit density in order to allow construction of the community’s “fair share” of “affordable housing.” Now, 98% of residentially zoned property in the city is zoned to allow only one house on an acre or more of land.
A list of 35 proposed sites for affordable housing in Poway surfaced publicly last April and brought an immediate outcry from Poway residents, who argued that “cookie-cutter condos” and “migrant motels” would turn the city into just another suburb in the urban sprawl that has grown up around the Poway valley.
When David and Margaret McKee discovered that their home and acreage along Twin Peaks Road was on the site list, they appealed to the City Council for relief.
“We have owned the place for nearly 40 years and raised our family there. We aren’t about to leave it,” Margaret McKee explained.
“It was people like us, who have held on to the open space and did not give in to the developers, that gave this city its charm and earned it the appellation, ‘the City in the Country’ that brought most of you here in the first place,” she recently told council members.
“Most of the council members realized that it’s not possible to do things like that in Poway,” Margaret McKee said. “They realized that they had not given people in the community any input.”
The McKees’ property was erased from the list, and the list was withdrawn from consideration until after Tuesday’s scheduled adoption of the housing plan.
What the City Council will consider Tuesday “is a framework of policies designed to provide for a mix of housing,” Mayor Goldsmith explained. The specifics of what and where will come later, he added.
“We’re not planning to put apartment buildings next to single-family neighborhoods,” Goldsmith assured housing plan critics. “We can accommodate growth for the next few years without harming our quality of life in Poway.” But she is worried about the years afterward.
Goldsmith pointed out that “neo-traditional design,” which mingles housing in with commercial development, avoids the clash with the city’s more affluent homes.
The revised city housing element must eventually pass muster by state Housing and Community Development Department analysts. Key to its approval will be provision of specific sites for future apartment complexes and other forms of low-cost housing and specific programs of subsidies and incentives to entice redevelopment of older neighborhoods and new development of affordable housing.
Until now, Poway’s policies have yielded limited actual housing for the hundreds of low-paid workers who hold jobs at the city’s fast-food establishments and service stations, as maids and yardmen in its residences or as janitors and nurse’s aides in its schools and at its hospital, Legal Aid Society lawyer Rodman pointed out.
Rodman is convinced that, despite efforts by some legislators to soften the new affordable housing regulations, “the state is not retreating. In fact, they are strengthening their formerly moderate position to a point where every community and every part of every community will have to have its fair share of affordable housing.”
If Poway leaders do not follow up the city’s carefully prepared housing plan with effective action, Rodman said, “I’ll be there with a lawsuit to force them to do it.”