Solana Highlands tenants prepare to vacate as redevelopment proceeds

Campos family members are among the many tenants who have to leave Solana Highlands as redevelopment proceeds.
Campos family members — (from left) Erika, Erika, Cassandra, Maria, Alicia and Oscar — are among the many tenants who have to leave Solana Highlands as redevelopment proceeds.
(Luke Harold)

Alicia Campos has lived at the Solana Highlands Apartments on South Nardo Avenue in Solana Beach for eight months with her mother, daughter and three grandchildren. The complex is close to UC San Diego, where she and her daughter work in facilities management, and the three local schools that each grandchild attends.

But now her family and other tenants in the 198-unit property are scrambling to find somewhere else to live. After years of planning, property owner H.G. Fenton is moving forward with a redevelopment that will replace the current structure with 260 new units. Residents have to leave by early next year for demolition and construction to proceed later in 2023.

The project has called attention to the factors driving gentrification in a statewide housing crisis that leaves tenants who are forced to move with few options.

“I’m scared because of my grandkids,” Campos said. “I have a mother who’s almost 80. And everything — doctors, the church — is around the corner.”

The family might look to San Marcos, Escondido or as far as San Ysidro for another place they can afford. In addition to a longer commute to work with inflated gas prices, the children may have to switch schools if they leave Solana Beach. Campos said her 13-year-old granddaughter has been looking forward to graduating from Earl Warren Middle School and going to Torrey Pines High School.

“She was so happy that she’s going to Torrey Pines, but we told her maybe you’re not going,” Campos said. “She was sad.”

Another tenant wrote on the Nextdoor app that she had “tears running down my face” looking at the prices of rental properties compared to what she and others are currently paying at Solana Highlands.

“Like actually, where are we supposed to all go?” she wrote.

Older apartment buildings such as Solana Highlands, which was built in 1970-71, provide naturally affordable housing because the rent is typically lower than newly built market-rate housing. But when landlords decide to redevelop, those units disappear. Due to the persisting housing crisis, tenants who lived in them often struggle to find another unit within their price range.

H.G. Fenton initiated plans to redevelop the property in 2014, according to a city staff report. But the city’s View Assessment Commission recommended that the City Council deny the project. Following a series of revisions over the following years, it received council approval in December 2018.

Solana Highlands is located near the heart of the 101-year-old La Colonia de Eden Gardens community. Mexican farmers made La Colonia their home because of racist housing policies that prevented them from living in the places where they worked, such as Rancho Santa Fe.

Many longtime residents sold their homes over the years to cash in on skyrocketing property values. Others have left because their landlords sold or redeveloped, and the high demand for housing in places like Solana Beach forced them to look outside the city for a new place within their budget. Faculty at Skyline Elementary School on Lomas Santa Fe Drive said they’re worried redevelopment has disproportionately impacted the city’s Latino community.

“The diversity we’re used to in Solana Beach is disappearing,” said Shannon Applegate, a fifth grade teacher at Skyline Elementary, where a number of Solana Highlands tenants attend school.

Applegate said there was a similar redevelopment about six years ago involving another Solana Beach apartment complex near the school. The Skyline students who lived there had to move, and she sees the same scenario playing out at Solana Highlands.

“I’m losing kids that I love,” she said. “It’s very traumatic for them and their families are super worried.”

Miguel Herrera, a community liaison for the Solana Beach School District, said the lower-income families who find a way to stay often live in households with multiple generations and multiple families under one roof. It’s the only way they can afford rent and keep their children in the same schools.

“You have all these boutiques, you have these really nice coffee shops, but it’s getting way too expensive for the local residents who have been there for a long time,” he said.

Tenants who have been in Solana Highlands for more than 12 months will receive relocation assistance equal to one month’s rent, according to H.G. Fenton.

“We understand current apartment residents’ lives will be impacted and we take the responsibility of being their partner to heart,” John La Raia, H.G. Fenton’s vice president, said in a statement. “This is why we have been working hand-in-hand to understand each resident’s experience, needs, and what being of service means to them during their relocation.”

The company is also giving tenants priority if they want to move into their other properties in San Diego, or move back into the redeveloped Solana Beach property. Demolition will take place late next year, but the construction timeline is not yet final. According to H.G. Fenton, some tenants have already moved into Bella Del Mar in Del Mar, and Evening Creek apartments in Sabre Springs.

The new 260-unit development will have 32 apartments designated as affordable for seniors who meet income requirements, and adds 62 new units to Solana Beach’s housing stock compared to the existing complex.

H.G. Fenton has also hired a redevelopment and community development consulting firm to work with tenants in 12 designated affordable units as they relocate.

“It’s one of those sort of ironic situations,” Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner said. “We’re doing what the state wants us to do for housing, but in a community like Solana Beach it’s causing us to lose a lot of naturally affordable housing. We will probably lose a vast majority of those families. It’s tragic in many ways. This is the fabric of our community that is unraveling.”