San Diego Julee Vaughan remembers the first installation of portable buildings at Central Elementary School during the 1960s, when she was a pupil there. That those temporary classrooms eventually became permanent reminds Vaughan that the San Diego Unified School District has long neglected children at inner-city campuses.
To ease overcrowding, the district plans to build an elementary school within three blocks of Central, at 4063 Polk Avenue. The construction site most favored by the district would displace more people than other potential spots. "No one is disputing that we need schools," said Vaughan, who two years ago voted for Proposition MM, a $1.51 billion bond issue to build 14 new schools and repair 154 existing schools by 2009. "But you need to consider people. It's human people. We're not cattle." Much of the ambitious program targets the gritty community where Vaughan lives, City Heights, northeast of downtown San Diego.
Under Proposition MM, the San Diego Unified School District will destroy more than 800 homes, including apartments, in City Heights to make room for at least four -- perhaps as many as six -- elementary schools. According to some of the first environmental impact reports, that translates to the forced removal of at least 2400 people, including Vaughan. The loss of housing is noteworthy in City Heights, bounded by El Cajon Boulevard to the north, State Highway 94 to the south, 54th Street and Chollas Creek to the east, and Interstates 805 and 15 to the west. The estimated 71,286 residents include the working poor and immigrants who are attracted by the central location, easy access to public transportation, and cheaper rental rates.
That the school district may seize property via eminent domain coincides with other redevelopment projects that are tearing down hundreds more homes and displacing thousands more residents in City Heights. Improvements could gentrify and homogenize the neighborhood, which boasts more than 30 languages, ranging from Farsi to Somali. The school district will provide moving expenses, fair market value to property owners, and rent differential; but its compensation package may not be enough. The grab for land within 5.5 square miles could inflate the cost of buying homes and renting apartments beyond the reach of blue-collar workers. City Heights' annual median household income of $23,394 compares with $42,244 for the city of San Diego.
Jay Hellerich, a homeowner in City Heights, is skeptical on hearing talk of using Proposition MM schools as tools to preserve owner-occupied homes and bulldoze run-down buildings and so-called blight. "People talk of trying to reduce density in the area. Translate that as: We want to get rid of the apartments and the people living in them," Hellerich said. "That smacks of class warfare to me!"
City Heights is home to 5 percent of San Diego's population, yet it contains about 22 percent of the city's low-income housing, according to estimates gleaned from San Diego Housing Commission maps. San Diego City Schools' 1998?99 Long-Range Facilities Master Plan reports what is common knowledge: to make ends meet, families double and triple up in City Heights' apartments and homes. Although the community has seven existing elementary schools, they are inadequate for the burgeoning population of children, the master plan states. "Several Mid-City elementary schools doubled or tripled in size during the late 1980s and early 1990s.... Growth in the Mid-City area has continued."
Real estate agent David Nelson is among neighborhood volunteers who say the overcrowding of children in temporary classrooms and antiquated buildings is so bad they could easily win a discrimination lawsuit against the San Diego Unified School District. Pointing to John Marshall Elementary School at 3550 Altadena Avenue as an example, Nelson said, "It's almost criminal the way they cram these kids in here." With an initial capacity of 400 pupils, Nelson said, disputing the district's estimate of 600, John Marshall now has an enrollment of 827 but has held more. The campus includes 14 permanent classrooms and 30 portables. Other nearby elementary schools with an unknown initial capacity house even more pupils. Current enrollment now totals 997 at Euclid and 1161 at Central, but both schools have accommodated more.
School districts -- unlike public redevelopment agencies, such as San Diego's Centre City Development Corp. -- are under no legal obligation to replace housing they eliminate. About five years ago, the San Diego Unified School District destroyed 269 homes and evicted 650 people to build two schools in City Heights. Financed by Proposition O bonds, Rosa Parks Elementary School, at 4510 Landis Street, and Monroe Clark Middle School, at 4388 Thorn Street, represent the district's first experience with building in populated urban neighborhoods rather than on vacant land in the suburbs. Rosa Parks was over capacity by several hundred children the day it opened in 1996.
Michael Sprague said a depressed real estate market in the 1990s softened the impact of dislocation. A higher vacancy factor -- at times exceeding 8 percent, according to the San Diego County Apartment Association -- enabled people to move elsewhere within City Heights. In some cases, relocation expenses and rent-differential checks offered by the school district gave renters a head start on home down payments, he said. At the same time, some homeowners attended public meetings to beg school officials to condemn their properties. "People would yell at me standing in line at the grocery store because their block wasn't taken," recalled Sprague, who then served as chairman of the City Heights Area Planning Committee.
Now, with soaring real estate prices and an almost nonexistent vacancy rate -- ranging from less than 1 percent to 3 percent, depending on the survey -- for rentals, people are less inclined to uproot, Sprague said. Property owners and tenants to be ousted by Proposition MM schools will have to venture outside San Diego to find comparable prices, he predicted. In addition, City Heights residents who receive public assistance, such as federal Section 8 rent subsidies, face difficulties if they are evicted; the government aid they receive limits their access to displacement compensation available from schools as well as from other redevelopment projects. "The poorest of the poor get the least help," Sprague noted.