Olga Diaz, longtime Escondido city council member, is running for Board of Supervisors in the 3rd District, against incumbent Kristin Gaspar, who wants a second term. The election will be March 3. The two top vote getters will meet again in November for the title.
I recently met with the councilmember at one of Escondido’s favorite breakfast haunts, Sunnyside Kitchen where she explained why she is running. As anyone who has followed Diaz’s career knows, she does not speak in sound bites. When she talks policy, you get much to write about.
“Because I think I would do an excellent job,” she said in answer to the “Why?” “It’s the highest level of local government. As someone who has served about a dozen years, it’s the next step. My passion is helping people. I’ve had the kind of career that put me in a position to do that.”
For Diaz, there are many issues but three resonate: 1) Climate change, 2) chronic homelessness and 3) housing in general.
Climate Change: “The County has failed to produce a legally defensible climate action plan.” Twice, she says, climate action plans have been successfully challenged in court. Twice, those produced by the County have been deemed insufficient. “That has not been ambitious enough to meet our greenhouse gas emissions goals. If, by the time I’m elected that process has not been concluded, that would be one of the first things I would want to work on with my colleagues.”
She calls it “a global issue that goes much further than the County action plan,” that would begin with relieving developmental sprawl, which causes more to resort to cars than to mass transit, walking or biking to work. This doesn’t mean fewer houses, but, she says, more dense housing. “If you keep building out, out, out to the undeveloped land you still create a situation where people have to drive in to employment for serves, groceries, food, gas. It’s a way of life that doesn’t need to be as indulged as much as it has been.”
On the council she has worked on this issue, employing Escondido’s General Plan to try to limit urban development to the core. “Those are principles I have believed in for a long time,” said Diaz. “It’s called smart growth. It’s also economically more feasible because you already have infrastructure in place, roads, libraries grocery stores.” As supervisor she would restrict where sprawl is allowed. “Of course, there’s a general plan that if adhered to still allows 50,000 units at buildout. Every city has a general plan and the county has a general plan, with the supervisors acting as the land use authority.”
Other ideas include, “Doing as much as possible to preserve open space and acquire more. Put it into preserves,” she said. “There are a variety of ways to do that. Through state and county funds. There are land preservation organizations within the county (such as the Escondido Creek Conservancy and the San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority.) That and trail expansion is important for the entire county and it support climate action goals.”
She adds, “Expanding our tree canopy is critical. Planting more trees! Trees take carbon out of the air. There are a lot of personal habits people should change to fight climate change. Some people drive less. Some walk. Some change eating habits to eat less meat —the carbon footprint of the meat industry is significant. Those are personal choices people have to make. Collectively it should have an impact. A lot of the bans and reduction on plastic products are now second nature when 20 years ago nobody talked about banning plastic bags or straws. Now it’s absolutely seen as a normal thing to do, especially in light of all the footage that has been shared about global devastation of the plastic industry in terms of trash floating in the rivers and oceans. People are now much more mindful of their use of these things.”
From the County perspective, she says, fighting climate change is “finding ways to have fewer vehicles either on the roads or people traveling shorter distances to work. So people find ways to find what they need without sitting on freeways for hours.”
Which brought us to housing. “An interesting thing about general housing is that local government doesn’t actually build any,” said Diaz.” The mayor isn’t out swinging a hammer and building houses. We get federal funding through HUD allocations, through state resources, through developers fees. We pass them through to try to achieve a balance of housing stock.” The two parts of housing generally taken care of, she says, are high end, high priced housing and subsidized housing. “The development industry’s only task is to make money,” she says. “They don’t have a moral compass they need to adhere to. On the other end of the spectrum is subsidized affordable housing. There are several examples of subsidized affordable housing in Escondido,” she says. “There isn’t enough of that but there are more efforts to address it. What’s missing is entry level housing.” She remembers her first home, which was small but doable to buy. “That product isn’t really being produced,” she says.
“In my discussion with developers I asked why they don’t build this and they say, ‘There’s no profit in it’ because land values and fees are too high,” says Diaz. This introduces her idea for workforce housing on public land. “About land values, every public agency owns land. Water districts, the city and county. There’s publicly held land. Within the general plan areas we could identify land that is developable for housing. Inventory public land. I’d want to inventory it and create a joint powers authority.” She likes the JPA model because it creates shared responsibility and shared authority: “It’s not just one agency’s responsibility but together they can.” She proposes JPAs for available publicly owned land. “Create a contact with oversight on identifying buildable land. Since the land is of no cost to the developer, land value isn’t an issue.”
This workforce housing could be sprinkled throughout the County involving cities that want to participate. It would embrace public employees such as firefighters and teachers. “There are thousands and thousands of public employees, whether hospital or water district or school. To be eligible you would need to go through a process. It wouldn’t be free. Ideally,” she says, “rent revenues would pay for construction, but they wouldn’t need to pay for the land. This won’t work for everybody but it will work for some . You should live near where you work. You don’t have to expand freeways.” This returns to her goals for climate change.
“It’s a very ambitious concept and it would require a lot of collaboration,” she says. “The problem clearly isn’t solving itself so this is an idea that needs a champion. From the standpoint of being a county supervisor I feel I could navigate that concept.”
She also likes the idea of encouraging big companies that already have large parking lots, such as Qualcomm, to devote 10% of their parking to employee housing. “It wouldn’t be free but it would put you near your work. Parking lots are now housing. Taking the land cost out of development reduces the cost to developers.” She also likes repurposing old malls.
No one idea is a silver bullet, she likes multiple approaches. “Even SANDAG’s plan to make public transportation more affordable isn’t about taking everyone out of their car, but ten percent,” she says. “Which reduces greenhouse gas emissions. You need to do all of those things, and it’s not just government, but all kinds of people trying to accomplish them together.”
She emphasizes “we don’t want to just building anything. We want high quality products that will still be nice in fifty years. It’s important to build because we have a supply issue, but we can’t build without quality of life, without adding trails and amenities. Or else people won’t want to live there.”
Diaz wants to focus on chronic homelessness. When she was working at Interfaith, she saw, “up close how social services work and doesn’t work. And how the County interacts with the nonprofits. A big share of the County’s $6.3 billion budget goes to Health and Human Services. One of the ways they distribute is to grant to nonprofits. It sets standards for how they help people, through self-sufficiency measures to help you get back on your feet. That’s been the focus, to help people get back on their feet.”
What has not been built into the model, she says, is compassion and acceptance. “There is an element of population that we will always have to take care of. When you meet chronically homeless people, you come to realize that it doesn’t matter how many grants the County gives, self-sufficiency is not a possibility for everybody. I’m talking about people who have insurmountable mental health issues. It’s inhumane to suppose they will get to a stage in life where they won’t need guidance. There is not a one size fits all for addressing that situation.”
She believes that population makes up more than half of the homeless. “A large percentage need ongoing support.” She likes the fiduciary model that the Veterans Administration uses for some of its clients. “Veterans who end up chronically homeless, they don’t manage their money well. They get taken advantage of. You appoint someone to manage their money, pay rent, buy groceries. That makes so much sense to me because it seems like it would resolve a lot of problems for people who are not capable of doing for themselves. I know people who get their benefit check and within a couple of days it is gone. They blow it. If you have people who are in that situation repeatedly—and we know who they are—you should be able to intervene to help them stay out of that situation.”
Obviously laws would need to be changed to accomplish that. Then with those who need bed space, there is still a need to build a supply to accommodate them. “I like the model of a dormitory. Lots need support and to have individual rooms, but with a common area, and a cafeteria so you can have onsite staff to make sure they are safe and medicated and getting the help they need. The housing model has been to build around apartments but I like the dormitory, because it gives chances to interact.”
Asked her opinion of the SOS initiative, Measure A, Diaz said, “I’m not endorsing it. I answer that question truthfully when it’s asked. I will be voting for it. I’m not afraid of the effects of SOS. It mirrors very closely Prop. S here in Escondido, which has been here for decades. It has not limited growth. All it does is freeze the General Plan. The plan is produced through community input and significant effort to design and plan the future growth of the city.”
The County’s General Plan was also produced through many public meetings and input. “Once you have a General Plan in place that is voter approved, SOS would freeze it so that changes would need approval of the voters. I don’t think that is a terrible thing. It allows for trust in the planning process. There’s a lot of hyperbole around it. I’m not someone to make an issue out of it. I don’t like to rile people up or scare people. If SOS passes we’re are all going to be fine. If it doesn’t pass then nothing changes.”
Diaz doesn’t buy the accusation that something like SOS adds to homelessness. “It merely freezes the plans. They are building into it already. It doesn’t change the plans. Build where you are allowed to build. The only thing it will make harder to do is land speculate.”
The core reason for something like SOS is lack of trust in public agencies, she says. “How do you regain trust? It’s not clear that at the County there has been a significant connection between the board and the public.
Post time: Jan-02-2020