Known for its density, walkability and Mile of Cars, National City is also a leader in housing affordability. It’s been ranked first among San Diego County’s 18 cities when it comes to affordable housing.
The affordability crisis is causing angst, anger, frustration ... and flight. San Diego continues to lose young families to parts of the nation where cheaper housing exists.
But National City is leading the way in adding affordable units, and a recent project is seen as a catalyst for future projects.
Located adjacent to the 24th Street transit station, the project will increase the city’s stock of affordable units, which currently sits at more than 17 percent. It will also begin the revitalization of a neighborhood and set a benchmark for transit-oriented, low-income properties in the county.
In San Diego, efforts to increase density along transit corridors have been met with resistance. Meanwhile, new urban developments are gentrifying once-poor neighborhoods, forcing out lower-income residents and making the region one of the most unaffordable in the nation.
National City’s new venture, Paradise Creek, could help turn the tide. The 201-unit, low-income project is a public-private partnership between the city; Community HousingWorks (CHW), a nonprofit that builds affordable housing; and Related California, a private development company. “It’s the first real investment in the area,” said Stephen Russell, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego Housing Federation. “It’s creating a high-water mark for the area and will be the finest building in the community.”
The numerous funding sources used to finance Paradise Creek represent another standout aspect of the development. Aside from $21 million in city redevelopment funding, the project obtained $5.3 million from the state’s new Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program, which targets projects in low-income areas within a half-mile of a transit station. Paradise Creek was the only housing project in the county to receive money from the program during the initial round of funding. The project also was awarded one of five Sustainable Communities grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The project will add to National City’s density, which already is the highest in the county, with 6,400 people per square mile. That helps promotes walking, in which National City is a leader.
It recently was named the county’s most walkable city by Circulate San Diego for the third year in a row. National City continues to “vigorously add pedestrian infrastructure — especially near schools and civic buildings,” Circulate San Diego said.
Construction of Paradise Creek’s 109-unit, first phase began in November 2015, with completion slated for December of this year. The development’s 92-unit second phase will begin this summer, along with construction of a four-acre park. The project will feature a high concentration of two-, three- and four-bedroom units reserved for households earning 80 percent or less of the area’s median income.
Currently more than half of all National City households earn $40,000 or less, which should mean high demand for the units at Paradise Creek.
As of early June, an estimated 250 applications had already been received for the initial 109 units.
National City Mayor Ron Morrison said preference will be given to National City families, who should be attracted to the property because of its proximity to public transportation and Kimball Elementary School. The school, which is less than half a mile from Paradise Creek, is the highest rated elementary school in the city, according to GreatSchools. It received a score of 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. GreatSchools noted that schools serving similar low-income populations average a score of 3.
Upon completion, Paradise Creek will rank among the largest affordable properties in the city. Existing large, low-income developments include the 370-unit Plaza Manor Apartments, also known as Summercrest, and the 268-unit Park Villas. Russell sees Paradise Creek as a project that will inspire other redevelopment.
He pointed to the nearby ITT Technical Institute campus, which has a large parking lot that could be converted to structured parking. Paradise Creek also lies just west of the National City Mile of Cars. With dealerships recently reducing their size, Russell sees an opportunity for commercial land redevelopment.
Outside of the Paradise Creek neighborhood, the city’s evolution will occur via a balanced mix of market-rate and affordable developments. This mix of rentals is key to the city’s transition, as it is hard to attract a number of new businesses to the area if only affordable units are being constructed, Morrison said.
The need for more conventional units is apparent, as only 1.6 percent of all market-rate units in the Mid-City/National City submarket were vacant at the start of this year. When looking only at National City, the rate hovers around 1 percent. “Everyone’s kids are having to move somewhere else because there’s no housing,” Morrison said.
Currently, at least two conventional multifamily projects are underway in the city, including a 72-unit project on Plaza Boulevard near I-805. Demolition is slated to begin this summer on a block near City Hall to make way for a luxury apartment project that could feature up to 200 units, along with street-level retail.
National City is also getting more land to possibly develop. Following the dissolution of redevelopment agencies in 2012, the state is releasing a number of parcels.
Some of the prime land is within the central business district and approved for mixed-use developments. Two of these sites are roughly a half-mile from the Eight Street trolley station and within a block of three bus stops, which provide access to five different routes, according to the city’s redevelopment agency.
If any of these sites are developed into affordable housing, Morrison said, funding will be the biggest hurdle. The city will have to be creative and pursue a number of grants in a process similar to the one used for the Paradise Creek project, which should serve as a template for the city, he said. Whether through an increase in affordable rentals or market-rate units, the city will increase its housing stock via only one avenue.
“Any project we do will be a form of redevelopment,” Morrison said. “Our urban reserve is the weeds behind the backstop at the Little League field.”