DEL MAR — For the past two and a half years, Tracy Mull has lived in limbo, wondering if she will be able to maintain her rental housing subsidy or if she, her teenage son and her dog will be forced to move out of the community she has lived in for nearly four decades.
Mull, 57, is one of four Del Mar residents who rely upon the city of Del Mar’s rental assistance program, a longtime subsidy initiative that city officials say has become too expensive to operate in recent years.
The program was planned to sunset on June 30, with no alternative housing options in place for the four residents, all of whom are disabled. The threat of homelessness has hung over Mull’s head as she has tried and failed to find an alternative housing option that doesn’t have a multi-year waitlist.
“I don’t necessarily have an exit plan. When you make $17,000 a year, you don’t have a lot of float,” Mull told the City Council on Monday. “One of the things that we actually practiced was, how do we sleep in the car? How do we make a home when there is no home to go to? I don’t know if any of you guys have ever car camped or even camped in a tent … it’s not an easy situation,”
Following months of conversations with Del Mar Community Connections, the nonprofit overseeing the program, city officials agreed on Monday to continue the program indefinitely and enter into a new funding model that will come partially from the city and partially through community fundraising.
This arrangement will remain in place until all four current participants have voluntarily exited the program, and no new participants will be accepted.
The new funding arrangement requires the city to continue funding 50% of the program’s costs — an annual total of $40,000 rather than the current cost of around $95,000 — with the remainder to come from community fundraising.
“All we are here to talk about is, ‘how do we protect the four existing participants in this program?’ There will not be a reopening of the program, and there will not be a reopening of the waitlist,” said DMCC President Bob Gans. “We’re proposing a public-private partnership between the community and the city that will allow not for a restart of the program but for an orderly wind-down that is fair and humane and makes sense.”
The City Council’s unanimous approval elicited applause from the audience and hugs between program participants, community members and DMCC leaders.
“This is in some ways exactly what we were looking for, some way that the program could continue, and I really appreciate Del Mar Community Connections for stepping up on this,” said Councilmember Dave Druker.
The rental assistance program started in 1988, has historically been funded entirely by in-lieu housing fees received by the city from developers. However, city officials said the program’s model has become infeasible due to a lack of incoming fees — Del Mar received none of the $25,000 projected annual revenue in the past two years — and the rising cost of running the program itself.
Plans to cancel the program have been in the works since the fall of 2021, with leaders hoping to discontinue it and transition all participants into new housing by June 2022. However, it was extended to July 2023 after efforts by San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency to identify local alternative housing options came up fruitless.
One major obstacle is that participants would first have to exit the program to qualify for additional subsidies or other housing assistance, leaving them vulnerable for an unknown amount of time.
“Due to the unprecedented demand for social service resources and assistance throughout the region, no programs or services that would allow the program participants to stay in Del Mar or find comparable living arrangements in the immediate surrounding area have been identified,” a staff report read.
The uncertainty around the program for the past few years has also created unease for participants’ landlords, Gans said, which is why it was essential to find a long-term solution.
David Ralph, another program participant, said he would have to move far away if the program were to end. The 70-year-old’s remaining family is in Florida. He has lived in his rent-subsidized housing for over a decade, where he enjoys tending to his well-maintained garden, being near his close friends and living by public transportation, as he can no longer drive.
“I’ll have to find a new place to live, and I don’t know where. My community is here in Del Mar, where I have lived most of my adult life,” Ralph told the council. “Having to leave my home would truly break my heart. I don’t know how I could start over in a new place … How would you feel if you were in this situation?”
Gans said any fundraising shortfall would be made up from the nonprofit’s reserves, although he anticipates that the support from the community would not allow this to happen.
On the other hand, city officials agreed that if the city saw in-lieu fee revenues return, they would be obligated to direct all those funds toward the program.
“We’ve come up with what we think is a compromise proposal that helps achieve some of the city’s goals and also allows the program to continue over the longer term and naturally phase out through attrition,” City Manager Ashley Jones said.
Mull said she loves Del Mar and that it immediately felt like home when she first moved here in 1985. It is where she and her first son, Matthew, forged their community and made countless memories, and she found comfort after he died unexpectedly in 2017.
She prioritizes giving back to the community in any way she can, working as an intervention specialist and trying to help people down on their luck. She said that receiving assistance from DMCC has been humbling, but she is incredibly grateful for it.
“I do a lot of things here, and I’d love to be able to stay and continue doing them,” she said.