Getting homeless people off the street and into permanent homes is not a controversial idea. Getting people to agree on where they should live, however, can be a tough sell.

San Diego city officials are experiencing that challenge once again as plans move forward to buy two hotels that could house 400 homeless people who are staying at a temporary shelter in the San Diego Convention Center.

The proposal to buy the Marriott Residence Inn at 1865 Hotel Circle South and the Residence Inn at 5400 Kearny Mesa Road is scheduled to go before the city’s Housing Authority on Tuesday.

“It comes down to being part of the community,” San Diego Housing Commission Chief Operating Officer Jeff Davis said about the need to have good relationships with neighbors.

Residents and business owners in the area have expressed concerns about the project, and Davis said a remote meeting was held with about a dozen people from the area Oct. 5 and another is planned Monday afternoon.

Getting neighbors’ approval for such projects isn’t a requirement, but it can help smooth the process. The Housing Commission and service providers such as Father Joe’s Villages typically reach out to the community early in the process whenever planning housing or other projects to help homeless people.

“I’ve always thought it very important that on the outset, you start communication with the community,” said Deacon Jim Vargas, president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages. Similar to the Housing Commission plan, Father Joe’s Village bought a motel in South Bay and had meetings with community members about their plan to convert the building into housing for homeless people, which opened in August as Benson’s Place.

The city was on a tighter schedule than ideal in its pursuit of the two hotels, and so far has had time for only the Oct. 5 meeting. Some property owners and residents on Hotel Circle said they feel the city is rushing the project and not giving them a chance to voice their concerns.

“We’re unhappy that the Housing Commission is ramming this through and didn’t seek our weigh-in on it,” said Cathy Herrick, managing member of the LLC that owns the Atwood Hotel on Hotel Circle.

Housing Commission President and CEO Rick Gentry announced the city was pursuing the purchase of the hotels in late August, but did not reveal the names of the hotels because the real estate negotiations were ongoing. The hotels were first discussed in public at the Housing Commission’s Sept. 18 meeting.

Gentry said a key funding portion of the purchase was the $37.7 million the city will receive from the state’s Project Homekey, a $600 million pool to go toward housing homeless Californians during the pandemic.

As a requirement to receive the funding, the state money has to be spent by Dec. 31. Gentry said he’s confident the two hotels will be bought and converted by then, but the deadline has made the process accelerated.

While only two meetings will have been held before the Housing Authority meeting on Tuesday, Davis said community members will continue to be able to weigh in on the project. Gentry also said the commission will create a “Good Neighbor Committee” consisting of city and community representatives to regularly meet.

Davis said the Oct. 5 meeting focused mostly on zoning questions, while next Monday’s meeting should be more about the project itself.

Herrick said she attended the Oct. 5, but still has many questions.

“We have asked them to assure us that they’re going to provide security to tap down this homeless problem we already have,” said Herrick, adding that she is sympathetic to people experiencing homelessness and as a San Diego Rescue Mission board member she is supportive of efforts to help them.

Davis said security will be provided, and he hopes that issues and other questions about the project will be answered Monday. He also hopes to clear up some rumors and misconceptions he’s heard about the project, including that it isn’t housing, but rather a shelter that could have up to 1,000 beds. The city’s plan is for 190 rooms on Hotel Circle, plus two for managers, with another 142 rooms and two rooms for managers in Kearny Mesa.

The pitfalls of not working with a community on housing projects was particularly clear last month when county supervisors applied for $19 million in Project Homekey funds, only to withdraw the application a week later after complaints they had circumvented residents. The county had planned to use the money to buy a La Mesa motel to house homeless people, but backed off after the La Mesa City Council and residents of the city complained that they had never been notified of the plan and strongly objected to it.

Two years ago, San Diego officials had to answer to a room full of Logan Heights residents upset about a plan to open a storage center for homeless people in their neighborhood, which they learned about through news reports rather than a notice from the city.

Herrick isn’t alone in her concerns about the hotels. In emails to the Housing Commission and to The San Diego Union-Tribune, several people wrote that they were worried bout their property values and safety. Some saw the hotel as a magnet for more homeless people and also questioned if the tenants themselves would be good neighbors. One writer described the potential tenants as “Welfare homeless pollution.”

Josh Truelson lives at the Mission Village condominiums next to the Residence Inn on Hotel Circle and said he was not aware of the Oct. 5 meeting with the Housing Commission but had many questions about the project.

“We’re getting the impression that it’s going to be a typical shelter for everybody,” he said, referring to flyers about the project he has seen distributed at his condo complex.

Truelson said he would appreciate more information from the city to ease his concerns.

“I’d love for the city to walk us around and let us see their plans,” he said. “We just want to know what we have to face.”

Vargas stressed that working with community members has greatly helped Father Joe’s Villages in creating its housing projects.

In January, Father Joe’s Villages broke ground on one if its most ambitious projects, the 400-unit Saint Teresa of Calcutta Village at 14th and Commercial streets, which Vargas said got a considerable amount of early pushback, including from the East Village Association.

After meeting with members of the group and explaining the project, Vargas said the association wrote a letter of endorsement. That letter was included in a funding application that netted the nonprofit up to $20 million, he said.

Among the questions and concerns he hopes to clear up, Davis said there will be security on the properties as well as live-in managers and other professionals who will work on-site to provide residents with mental health therapy, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or other help to get them back on their feet.

Those services and a proposed food pantry will only be available to residents so should not be an attraction for other people, Davis said, adding that a shuttle service also is planned to provide transportation for people to go shopping or to work.

“I understand where the fear is coming from, but this is very much going to be a place where tenants live,” Davis said, distinguishing the housing project from a homeless shelter.

Herrick said she and others in the area still have concerns about how the new housing will affect the neighborhood. Although tenants will no longer be homeless, she said she fears the residents who have drug addictions or mental health issues still may wander around outside and create problems in the neighborhood. While the plan is for services and the food pantry to be available only to tenants, she also worries that homeless people from other areas will show up at the building anyway.

Davis said security at the building also will keep loiters away, and he pointed to several other residential projects created by the Housing Commission that blend into their neighborhoods and do not have a negative impact on neighborhoods.

Herrick said she has heard otherwise from some businesses near other Housing Commission properties. She would not name names, but said she would bring up what she had heard at Monday’s meeting.

She also said she is open minded and would hear what the city has to say.

“I have a heart for the homeless,” she said.

While she feels the city has been dismissive to the community and she fears the project could hurt hotels already having a bad year because of the pandemic, she also said the plan could be accepted in the neighborhood if the city assures them tenants will be model citizens and security will keep the area safe. If tenants in fact are model citizens, she said she could see them becoming employees at hotels in the area, creating a win-win for all sides.

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