By Susan Riggs, Executive Director of the San Diego Housing Federation.

Background: The San Diego City Council’s recent increase of the so-called “linkage fee” — also known as the “workforce housing offset fee” — has sparked a campaign to overturn the fee hike. The fee was originally adopted in 1990 to help pay for affordable housing on the theory that new development means more workers and a need for more low-cost housing.

Business leaders and small business owners say it’s a jobs-killing tax and hope to gather enough signatures to put the issue to voters on the June ballot. Affordable housing advocates say there is an extreme shortage of low-cost housing available to working families. Here is one view on the issue.

For the nearly 125,000 working San Diegans who are living in severe poverty, being able to make the rent and cover the cost of basic needs like groceries, medicine and transportation is difficult and getting worse.

Rising rents, coupled with historically low apartment vacancies, make finding a place to live for San Diego’s growing low-wage workforce increasingly difficult. Our city’s workers, who keep our economic engine humming, must be able to find housing that is decent, stable, and affordable in order to continue to be productive contributors to our economy. Simply put, if we want San Diego’s economy to thrive, we have to address the city’s affordable housing crisis.

Thriving economies need a diverse workforce, and business leaders consistently acknowledge that a local, stable, and adequate workforce depends on an affordable supply of housing. Furthermore, providing an opportunity for workers to live in the city where they work allows people to contribute to the economy through their employment, as well as by investing their earnings right back into the local economy by shopping, dining and enjoying entertainment options in their community.

The recently updated Workforce Housing Offset, or linkage fee, provides a crucial source of funding to create housing options that are within reach of low-wage workers. Revenues from the offset are leveraged with other funding sources to build housing that is affordable to the city’s service, health-care, and hospitality workers, to name a few. The return on investment of this resource not only brings housing options for the workforce, but also has been leveraged historically 30 times with federal, state and private investment dollars. And, building these homes creates jobs and new economic activity both during and after construction.

Adopted in 1990, the offset has served as the city’s main source of local funding for the development of affordable housing. Unfortunately, the fee was slashed by half in 1996 in what was intended to be a temporary measure. Since 1996, the offset hasn’t been updated to reflect current construction costs and housing demand. This has resulted in nearly two decades of deep underfunding for affordable housing, worsening the city’s already devastating housing crisis.

Recognizing the implications of continuing to neglect this critical resource, our elected leaders on the San Diego City Council took action to seriously address affordable housing needs by voting to approve bringing the offset up to date.

Regrettably, a group of special interest organizations has begun to collect signatures to overturn the City Council’s decision by placing a measure on the ballot. Whether the law should stand or be overturned is a fundamental question of how we, as San Diegans, envision the future of our city. With one in eight San Diego workers living in our city barely making ends meet, we have to ask ourselves if that is something we accept.

The Workforce Housing Offset is one piece of a larger set of policies necessary to address our city’s housing needs. Affordable housing advocates have participated in, and contributed to, the exploration of a wide range of ideas to increase the supply of housing affordable to our city’s workers. We continue to support complementary efforts to make housing development more cost-effective and efficient.

In the meantime, however, we have taken a significant step in the right direction by bringing the city’s Workforce Housing Offset back to where it was in 1990.

Now is not the time to go backward. Upholding the Workforce Housing Offset is the right thing to do for San Diego workers and the right thing to do for our city’s long term economic prosperity.

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Originally published in the U-T San Diego. Susan Riggs is executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation.