San Diego fat cats transformed the concept of redevelopment from help for the poor to welfare for the rich. They have a fear of Governor Jerry Brown, who wants to get rid of redevelopment agencies around the state.
Now the local plutocrats have a fear of God too. The San Diego Organizing Project is a coalition of 27 churches throughout the county. Since 1979, it has taken stands on important social issues. “We believe deeply in bringing a moral voice and grassroots perspective,” says Joseph McKellar, who has taken a post in New York with the national affiliate called People Improving Communities through Organizing.
The San Diego Organizing Project, which includes such congregations as Christ the King Catholic Church, First Lutheran Church of San Diego, Nu-Way International Christian Ministries, and St. Jude Shrine of the West, is now concentrating its fire on getting redevelopment funds spread around to the neighborhoods instead of concentrated downtown.
“From a faith-based perspective, we look at equity,” says Father Henry Rodriguez, a former pastor of St. Jude who still helps out there and at other locations. “Redevelopment is focused downtown, but we have areas that have waited for streetlights for years, and then they see construction of new buildings downtown.”
Reflecting on redevelopment money subsidizing luxury hotels, condos, and shopping centers and not helping the truly needy, Bishop Roy Dixon of Faith Chapel Church of God in Christ says, “I wouldn’t call it immoral, but we will keep their feet to the fire.”
Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego (who is not involved with the Organizing Project), explains that redevelopment is more inequitable in San Diego than in any major city in the state. California redevelopment started in the mid-1940s. The idea was to eliminate blight and provide affordable housing and good jobs. Under Mayor Pete Wilson, San Diego set up the Centre City Development Corporation in 1975 to steer redevelopment money downtown.
Back then, there was blight downtown. There is barely any now. But Centre City still bullies the Redevelopment Agency, which is the city council. Under long-standing law, 80 percent of tax increment goes to a city and its redevelopment agency; the money has to be spent in the project area. In the early years, other cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, tried to hog redevelopment funds for downtown. But beginning in the 1960s, citizens raised hell (sorry, Organizing Project). Soon, cities throughout the state spread redevelopment funds equitably — except San Diego.
Centre City “was captured by the developers’ agenda,” says Erie, who cites the ballpark district as a classic example of a project that lined developers’ pockets. Centre City “outlived its usefulness years ago,” says Erie. No blight, no right.
The Organizing Project has put out a reform memo that makes excellent points. It criticizes last fall’s late-night, secret deal in the legislature to lift Centre City’s redevelopment cap — an obvious move to subsidize a Chargers stadium. “On that particular episode, we communicated our feelings,” says Father Rodriguez. “We wished the community would have been included in the dialogue.”
The memo says that redevelopment reform is “an issue which the city council has never had the political will to touch because of powerful downtown interests and a strong mayor unwilling to use redevelopment investments in neighborhoods outside the downtown.”
The Organizing Project says that Centre City should be merged with other redevelopment areas to create a neighborhood investment fund. Amen to that. Some argue that Centre City, a corporation, can’t be merged with project areas, but Jose Arenas, executive director of the Organizing Project, says lawyers have said it can be done. Another good Organizing Project idea: Centre City is now obligated to use 20 percent of its funds for affordable housing (although critics say it finds ways around the law). The Organizing Project wants that raised “to 35 percent at a minimum.” And Centre City should study using redevelopment dollars for the homeless.
Another good idea: redevelopment funds could be used to promote tourism, and proceeds from the hotel (transient occupancy) tax should go into the general fund. “We would like the city council to create a new Neighborhood Pride and Protection pot of money that is dedicated to neighborhood services, particularly youth and family services.”
Says Bishop Dixon, “Should we build a dog park downtown or increase low-rent housing? We should erase blight, not move it to another location,” which effectively happens under the downtown-centric setup. “We need one major agency” to make sure funds are distributed equitably.
Claudia Dunaway is an activist in the Stockton neighborhood, which is bounded by Route 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway, 30th Street, and Imperial Avenue. She attends Christ the King Catholic Church, although she doesn’t live in Stockton, and is very active in the Organizing Project. “Three years ago we were promised 28 streetlights, which are needed in this high-crime area,” she says. At one point, the mayor proposed closing the recreation center, but that decision has been reversed. “Three years later, we are still waiting for our streetlights, and they have just started to paint the rec center.”
She goes to the mayor asking for help in the neighborhood, “but he says he is limited by the system. The money has to stay downtown. His hands are tied.” That’s nonsense, of course. The mayor’s hands are tied because, like the kinky sex addict, he wants them tied: it’s the downtown crowd that shovels him loot. But if Dunaway agrees with that, she isn’t saying. “If I call people immoral, they won’t work with me, and I want to work with them.”
She and others from the Organizing Project asked the mayor about merging all the project areas to spread redevelopment funds throughout the city. “He looked at us and said, ‘I am not sure it is legal.’” Of course it’s legal. Other California cities have done it. Neutering or even slaying Centre City would be the first step.
Says Laura Mercado, another activist in Stockton and in the Organizing Project, “They should stop thinking about the big companies and start thinking about us. What they are doing is wrong. Most of our homes are falling apart. They could help us fix them.”
Dunaway cites the position of the Organizing Project: if redevelopment can be reformed and its benefits spread to neighborhoods, she would oppose Governor Brown’s plan. “But if they can’t reform redevelopment,” then Brown’s plan should go forward, “and the money should go back to the state for schools and other services.”