Forty people gathered inside Birney Elementary's auditorium in University Heights on February 4 for a meeting of the University Heights Community Association. On the agenda for the night: a vote to support or oppose a 1.45 acre, 175-unit mixed-use affordable rental housing project from Community Housing Works for the north side of El Cajon Boulevard in between Alabama and Florida streets. In addition to offering affordable units to low-income families, the building would set aside 20 units to house young adults with mental-health issues.
Seconds after the president of the association, Greg Sorini, introduced the item, a motion came from a middle-aged woman in the back of the room. The motion recommended that the organization oppose the project due to over-saturation of affordable-housing units in the area.
That motion was seconded.
Before going to a vote, a dozen involved community residents submitted speaker slips to comment on the project. The first to take the floor was Dave Gatzke, a senior project manager for the developer as well as a member of the Uptown Planning committee.
Gatzke passed out a prepared statement from his company. He read the statement to the audience from the front of the room. "We were not invited to tonight's meeting to present accurate facts regarding our proposal as part of your deliberations."
Gatzke said Community Housing Works has made repeated offers to discuss the project with concerned neighbors and pledged to "operate the property in a professional and neighborly manner."
"All of our efforts have been rebuffed by the board," added Gatzke, moments before Sorini interrupted him telling him that his two-minute time limit was up.
When Gatzke finished his statement, comments from residents were heard, who said that they don't trust the developer. The following thirty minutes were filled with one resident after another expressing that distrust.
The same University Heights denizen who offered the motion informed other members that she had visited other Community Housing Works buildings and asked residents to rate management's performance. The tenants told her about building inadequacies and traffic issues.
Apart from the lack of trust, community residents believe redeveloping the area should be the focus, not turning the drag into "a mental-health mecca" or a place where at-risk youth are exposed to the prostitutes and drugs dealers who walk the boulevard at night.
"This is going to be a battle," said one man who also opposed the project. "Why [is Community Housing Works] so insistent on putting this here? There's land everywhere."
The item went to a vote. It was unanimous, 30 to 0, all opposed. As the permit process continues, the community association's position will be passed on to the city and neighborhood planning groups.
Mr. Gatzke did not return this correspondent's request for comment.