By John Berry, Chief Executive Officer, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia
Last week I had the privilege of participating in the annual Atlanta Regional Commission’s LINK Trip to the San Diego Region. LINK brings civil, business, nonprofit, government, and community leaders from the Atlanta region together with those in other cities to discuss current issues and concerns, benchmark best practices, and explore how others are addressing common issues. It is an invaluable opportunity to learn and grow.
During the trip, I was especially interested in the panel discussions held on housing affordability, homelessness, transportation, and workforce development as these are issues which my organization, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, is very involved with and which the people we serve are very impacted by. Excellent detailed reports on these sessions have been written by Maria Saporta and are available on this site, so I will not go into the details of the sessions.
But what I will say is that the sum of the three days in San Diego left me with a nervousness for our Atlanta Region. As they say in Game of Thrones; ‘Winter’s coming’. And we need to be getting ready.
The reason I say that is that there are many parallels between the reality of San Diego today and the aspirations of Atlanta for tomorrow. And I am not talking about the good ones (of which there are many). For one, the wealth gap in San Diego is a huge issue mainly driven by housing costs. And those housing cost increase are driven by an ever-increasing high-tech job surge, especially in life sciences and high tech. Sound familiar? San Diego has jumped from the 49th largest income gap in the US to the 9th with a delta between incomes in the top 20% and bottom 20% at over $43,000. Why is that an issue? Because it is an incubator for a large number of negative impacts on a region, from homelessness to workforce availability.
The wealth gap is a major driver behind an issue that Atlanta is well aware of and trying to address; homelessness. San Diego has a very acute homelessness problem. The year-round moderate climate contributes to that homeless population coming from other places; but what surprised and frightened me was that the vast majority of homeless persons in the San Diego Region are ‘home grown’. And the majority of those persons are becoming homeless based on the rising housing costs and stagnation in wages in lower paying skilled jobs. These are people who were contributing members of the community, with homes and jobs, who now live on the streets or in shelters and tents. That is wrong.
In another area, as the Atlanta Region continues to work to develop a great business climate for high tech industries and companies it is going to have to increase its focus on affordable housing and economic opportunity for lower paying unskilled workers. Workforce Development efforts need to be consolidated and streamlined. San Diego has one regional Workforce Development Council; we have 5, or 6, or more. San Diego is also able to mitigate, to some degree, the inability of it’s workers to actually afford to live in the city and county by the fact that there is a huge workforce just across the border in Mexico. A group of us toured the General Dynamics Shipyard in San Diego (where they build and repair US Navy and civilian ships) and they told us that almost 40% of their workforce comes across the border every day. Where is Atlanta going to find those kinds of workers if gentrification and housing affordability drives lower wage workers away? Especially with the inadequate and limited mass transportation systems we have.
We need to understand and address the fact that no matter how many great workforce development programs we have, there are always going to be jobs that pay near minimum wage and have limited growth. Someone is always going to be making hamburgers at the local fast food place and we are not going to see their hourly wage at $25/hr. So where and how are they going to live in a region where there is limited affordable housing and inadequate transportation?
As I got ready to fly back to Atlanta Saturday morning I picked up the San Diego Union-Tribune at the airport. Of the four banner headlines on Page 1, one was “Report: Wealth Gap Grows”, and one was “Brown Offers Part of Budget Bonanza to Help Ease State’s Homelessness Crisis”. I don’t think any of us want that to see that kind of front page on the AJC.
But we could if we aren’t deliberate in our efforts. Winter is coming.
Featured photo by KRIS ARCIAGA