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LA Housing Department Leader Now Developing Affordable Housing In San Diego

When Sean Spear was the assistant general manager of the city of Los Angeles’ Housing and Community Investment Department, his job there revolved around securing financing for projects, working with developers, philanthropists, capital markets investors and banks to get affordable housing developed or maintained around the city.  

Now, as CEO of San Diego-based Community HousingWorks, he has become one of the developers he would have been working with at his last post. 

CHW oversees 42 developments, roughly 3,700 units, that it has either built or bought and kept affordable. Of those, 37 developments are in San Diego County, with the rest of them spread across the state. CHW has a major project underway in National City, near the state's southern border, that will include housing for seniors, families and supportive housing on the campus of a San Ysidro Health facility.

Community HousingWorks CEO Sean Spear

Like many affordable housing developers, Spear is concerned about how budget shortfalls that the state, counties and cities are all forecasting will pose a challenge to the financial momentum he says has built up for affordable housing over the last couple of years. He pointed to local and state initiatives that were voter-approved, including 2016's Measure HHH in Los Angeles, a $1.2B bond that would finance the building of 10,000 units of supportive housing.

The state budget, which made plenty of cuts across sectors in response to a projected $54.3B deficit resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, held fast on a plan to allot $500M in federal low-income housing tax credits for the creation of affordable housing. But because affordable developers don’t get all their project funding from one source, the widespread shortfalls of cities and counties experiencing their own budget issues will make it harder to move ahead with projects. 

It translates to those localities not having as much available for affordable development and being able to support developments like the ones CHW does, Spear said. The city of Los Angeles is projecting a budget deficit of as much as $400M to $600M. San Francisco is bracing for a projected $1.5B budget deficit.

“Unfortunately, it means having to be more careful about what we invest in as new deals,” Spear said. That caution extends into the future, as Spear expects the current conditions to persist for at least a couple of years.

If there is anything giving Spear hope for what is projected to be a bumpy road ahead, it’s popular support for building more affordable housing. 

That support has taken the form of new investors and financing sources for affordable housing, Spear says. In early 2019, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the Ford Foundation, Facebook and several other organizations banded together to try and raise $500M for an investment fund for affordable housing in the Bay Area. In February, the group announced it had secured commitments that would get it to its $500M investment goal ahead of schedule, and that it had closed seven loans to entities building new affordable housing or preserving existing affordable homes. 

The public has also focused its attention on the state’s need for housing that people can afford. A survey published in September 2019 by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 1 in 4 Californians pointed to either housing or homelessness as the most important issue facing the state and its residents. 

Spear says that although he, like plenty of other affordable housing developers, often has to contend with prejudices against affordable housing developments and the people who live in them, some of CHS’ recent projects have received positive community support. 

CHW has a project in the works now in downtown San Diego that will be geared toward "transition-age youth," or young people who are aging out of the foster system. It’s slated to rise on a city-owned property that used to be the site of a family services center that, in part, also helped the same population of young people. Neighbors of the project spoke in support of the project at a recent city approvals hearing. 

“There’s clearly a lot of community interest in meeting our housing challenge across the state, so I would assume that resources will follow once they become available again,” Spear said.