In State of the County speech, Board Chair Nora Vargas pledges to boost housing, small businesses and air quality

A woman in a bright pink suit speaks at a podium in front of a row of flags
Board of Supervisors Chair Nora Vargas delivers her State of the County address on Wednesday.
(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The newly elected board chair said she will focus on economic development and environmental health.


Jobs, housing and environmental health will be priorities for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, its new chair Nora Vargas said in her first State of the County address Wednesday evening, Feb. 1.

“Moving forward, I will work with cities throughout our region to expand rental protections and continue to build affordable housing,” she said. “We’re going to accomplish these goals while supporting local small businesses and working families, creating green jobs and fighting for environmental justice.”

At an event that was part policy speech, part backyard party, Vargas took the stage beneath a tent outside the County Administration Center wearing a hot pink suit, following a tribal bird singer ceremony, blessings by faith leaders and a performance of the national anthem by the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus.

As San Diego enters the third year of the global COVID-19 pandemic, she outlined its responses to housing shortages, mental health care and the struggles of small businesses. And she previewed plans to address public safety, border crossings and air quality.

Housing programs will focus on vulnerable groups including seniors, LGBTQ youth and others, she said, noting that nearly a quarter of the county’s homeless population is over 55.

“Can you believe we are leaving our senior citizens on the streets and without shelter? No more. Not on my watch,” she said, using a phrase that has been one of her signature sayings.

Rental assistance programs helped keep people in their homes amid COVID-19 shutdowns and business closures, and the board launched a $2.75 million program to provide $500 rental subsidies to seniors, she said. In the coming year, the county will partner with the San Diego Senior Center Community Foundation to upgrade senior centers “to be a hub for services, recreation and fun,” she said.

Over the next five years, the county will also spend $7.2 million on services and housing to LGBTQ youth and $5 million to help them overcome homelessness, she said.

Vargas said the county is also fighting hunger by supporting local agriculture and community gardens and ensuring access to fresh fruits and vegetables at food banks and pantries.

Recognizing the toll the pandemic took on San Diegans’ mental health, she said the board allocated $30 million for mental health services for children and youth and $2 million for homebound people. This year, Vargas said, it will launch mental health screenings for all middle school students in the county.

To tackle public safety problems, the board is joining with the Sheriff’s Department on an effort to fight gun violence, and it aims to reduce overdoses through a public awareness campaign to educate students and their parents about the dangers of fentanyl.

Supervisors plan to open the East Otay Mesa Fire Station next year and are working with District Attorney Summer Stephan to open a one-stop resource center for abuse survivors in South County.

Vargas said she also aims to improve both transportation and air quality by expanding bus and trolley access. Last year, supervisors offered free public transit passes to children and teens under 18, and this year she plans to expand that to anyone 24 and younger, to help college students and young workers.

“Together, we’re transforming how people move and how we get them to work and to school,” Vargas said.

She said that plans to open the Otay Mesa East Port of Entry will reduce transnational commute times and cut pollution from idling vehicles, recalling her own experience as a child waiting in her mother’s car to cross the border.

“You see, we are reimagining our binational community to develop a more efficient, innovative and environmentally friendly border,” she said.

And she announced what she called her “super-nerdy” plan to plant 10,000 trees in San Diego communities, “to ensure that we have healthy, clean air for our children and families.”

As she assumes leadership of a board of supervisors that has taken an increasingly active role in community matters in recent years, Vargas pledged to continue that vision.

“Know that this board and our county team is committed to keep fighting until everyone has a shot to achieve the American dream,” she said.