About 100 Encanto and Southeastern attendees gathered at the Malcolm X Library July 10 to learn about the unique lawsuit filed by longtime locals demanding the city and county stop jamming the neighborhood with poor people – while putting few or none in other neighborhoods.
“We resorted to a lawsuit because the defendants failed to implement policies they are well aware of,” said Kathleen McLeod, one of the plaintiffs. “The reality is communities like ours are not treated equitably or respectfully.”
State, federal, and local laws exist to make sure communities are racially and economically mixed, she explained. But those laws are being sidestepped in poorer communities, so that instead of planning diverse neighborhoods, neighborhood that are already lower income can only attract projects that “anchor us to poverty,” she said.
“Instead of this community being balanced economically and racially, we get concentrated poverty and people of color,” McLeod says. “Instead of getting parks and community assets that make living in density bearable, we get assets shifted to developers……It’s just stacking people up.”
Concentrating poverty doesn’t have to be intentional, says Elijah Gaglio, an attorney from Aguirre & Severson, which filed the federal lawsuit in May. “It allows people to attack unconscious bias based on statistical evidence,” he explained. “The numbers show entire neighborhoods with no low-income housing while certain zip codes are getting a number of projects.’
The city revised the two neighborhoods’ community plans to add almost 13,000 apartments. Other poor neighborhoods have been similarly affected, Gaglio says. Encanto is slated for about 8,100 new low-income apartments, where there now are about 3,300 apartments and 9,800 single-family homes; tilting the community from 75 percent homes to more than 53 percent apartments – largely low-income apartments. Southeast is expected to absorb 3,500 new apartments to the existing 9,400 apartments and 5,600 single-family homes.
Part of the problem is that the San Diego Housing Commission has a flat-rate subsidy by zip code for households that qualify for rent subsidies, who have to make up the difference. So subsidy in hand, renters choose between low-rent zip codes like City Heights, Southeastern, Nestor or San Ysidro where they have to add $200-$300 from their wages, or look in North Park or Mission Valley where they’ll have to add $400 or more per month to pay typical rents. That subsidized renters pile into in lower cost rent areas seems obvious – that it amounts to segregating poverty is the planned or unplanned outcome is the argument.
The lawsuit was originally spurred by the county’s decision to use a parcel of land that the community plan wanted to see used for a business or industrial area on Euclid and Market streets and build the Live Well center instead. The county plans to consolidate its south bay probation offices there and include its benefits programs – some still call it welfare – in the building.
County officials say the site is ideal for those efforts – close to the MTS trolley line and in the heart of a neighborhood where some often rely on the social and economic supports the county provides.
County counsel, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, and San Diego Housing Commission vice president Scott Marshall declined to comment, all citing policies that officials do not comment on active litigation. But officials and agencies have been trying to engage the community to diffuse opposition.
Neighborhood resistance prompted the county to sweeten the deal with 50 paid internships for area youth and 75 paid job training slots, a promised meditation garden and play area for kids, and inclusion of local merchants and local history and culture in the massive project.
But the seven women neighborhood activists who sued see something different. They see the county creating a powerful magnet for crime and poverty that will doom the neighborhood never to be able to become a middle-class neighborhood.
“We’re shifting from a 70 percent single-family home community that pays taxes to 70 percent multi-family rental units that are often subsidized and Instead of getting parks and assets that make living in density bearable, we get (community) assets shifted to developers,” McLeod said.
Low-income housing and government offices, like the Live Well Center, continue the area’s tilt toward poverty because they don’t pay real estate taxes or development impact fees, activists say. For example, city land that could have been much needed park space was instead sold to developers of low income housing, so the neighborhood loses twice – more people and less land and less money for parks, for example.
City officials look at neighborhoods’ tax income and developer impact fees paid by for-profit developers for funding amenities like parks and libraries. A neighborhood that lacks for-profit development often is park-starved and last in line for things like community centers and upgrades to existing recreation centers.
Social research has focused in part on concentration of poverty and it is increasingly understood to be harmful to people’s health as well as their ability to get out of poverty.
Elijah Gaglio, from Aguirre & Severson, explained that the plaintiffs don’t have to show intent – that anyone meant to or set out to stack the poor in the neighborhood. They have to prove it occurred.
“It focuses on the consequences of their actions regardless of their intent,” Gaglio said. “The consequence is we see a concentration of poverty we do not see in non-minority communities.”
The neighborhoods aren’t staying the same, locals say.
What we don’t see the grocery stores and commercial business; we don’t see the restaurants we used to have,” said Patrice Baker. “Our schools, our kids go to are graded at the bottom……Today we find ourselves trying to protect our neighborhood from becoming a dumping ground for all things poor.”
Free stuff isn’t free if it squeezes people into a neighborhood that’s declining. The area is moving from 70 percent single family homes that pay property taxes, to 70 percent multifamily units – many of which don’t pay taxes because they contain subsidized housing. “We want to able to pay taxes. We want opportunities here. We want to work for what we have,” said Gloria Cooper.