Class Warfare in City Heights

— 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.

The San Diego Housing Commission, which helps people obtain affordable housing, doesn't have authority over other agencies, said spokesperson Bobbie Christensen. Nonetheless, the commission is talking with the school district about the potential loss of homes in City Heights. "We're concerned -- especially when there's a housing crisis in San Diego," Christensen said. The commission, responding to an environmental impact report for the proposed Central Area Elementary School, asks the school district to restore some, but not all of the lost housing. In its letter dated August 30, the agency suggests such mitigation occur when the district builds at a site that removes more homes than another site.

Given the absence of state laws requiring the replacement of homes lost to schools, the San Diego Unified School District is unlikely to provide housing in City Heights. "That's not something we can do. I can't ever support that," said John de Beck, a board of education member. "Our job is to house kids in schools. If the kids are in City Heights, we should build schools there. If we displace kids in the process, it's the community's job to house the kids in homes. The housing commission is supposed to ensure that there's affordable housing everywhere, but Mid-City has more than its share of affordable housing." To help conserve space and save money, de Beck recommends building double campuses, or back-to-back schools, that share playgrounds, libraries, cafeterias, and other facilities.

Jay Powell, executive director of City Heights Community Development Corp., a nonprofit, public-benefit corporation that owns and manages affordable housing, views the MM schools as an opportunity to implement thoughtful urban planning. Powell envisions converting Polk Avenue, which borders three existing schools and possibly a new school, into a greenway where kids could safely walk. Installing photovoltaic cells on roofs would enable campuses to generate some of their own electricity. Designing buildings to double as community centers would better integrate schools into neighborhoods. Such innovations, described by Powell in letters and public meetings during the past year, have not generated firm commitments nor wild enthusiasm from school or city officials. Powell is concerned the district may build City Heights' four to six elementary schools without regard for their impact on one another. "What we need is a comprehensive approach," he said, "not incremental planning." Powell warns that estimates for the number of City Heights residents to be displaced by new schools could be low, noting the environmental impact reports use a multiplier of only three for each home to be demolished.

Despite complaints about lack of vision, the school district seems a bit more responsive and responsible about the MM schools than it was with the Proposition O schools, say Powell, Sprague, Nelson, and other volunteers. "They've made a big show of coming out to the community to talk with us. They've had smaller meetings for individual schools," Nelson said. "But I still don't completely trust them." In 1999 the district didn't seek enough input for the proposed Euclid Area Elementary School and spent $80,794 for an environmental impact report. Because the favored location upset homeowners who claim they had not been notified, the district is preparing another report targeting a spot closer to a larger population of children.

Only by word of mouth did Vaughan learn she lives in the path of the new Central Area Elementary School. If her location remains "the preferred site" -- as it is designated in the environmental impact report -- Vaughan and her husband would have to vacate the apartment they've occupied 14 years. But self-preservation isn't the only reason Vaughan speaks passionately about upcoming demolitions. As the property manager of a 16-unit apartment building on 39th Street, she is aware of San Diego's housing shortage, skyrocketing rents, and low turnover of tenants. Despite having an unlisted telephone number, Vaughan hears regularly from people looking for a place to live. "People move to San Diego every day. You need to take down a minimum of homes and apartments. The kids have to have a place to live as well."

Julie Sexauer, a City Heights homeowner, said the demolition of residences is only one factor to be weighed. Although the Central Area Elementary School's "preferred site" would dislodge more people than two other sites, Sexauer said, its proximity to the YMCA, a new park, and a proposed Boys & Girls Club would anchor a complex dedicated to children. "I support the primary site because it's the best use. I'm sorry about the loss of homes, but these schools are going to be here 50 years or more. As a taxpayer, it's important to me to see the school in the best place," Sexauer said. "There's a reason housing is affordable in City Heights. Much of it is significantly deteriorated with decades of deferred maintenance."

Traffic considerations are paramount, Nelson said, noting children should not cross busy streets, such as University or El Cajon Boulevard. "The schools need to make sense for the kids." At the same time, Nelson prefers spots that would rid City Heights of substandard housing and blight, which may include homes as well as apartments. But Hellerich dismisses such strategies for revitalization as "social engineering" with a hidden agenda. In the case of Central Area Elementary, there are two alternative sites that would displace far fewer people. "Why is the school district taking the site that costs two to three times as much and disrupts more lives?" Hellerich wonders. "Instead of dispassionately looking at the numbers, the school district and the neighborhood planning groups are co-conspirators in deciding which homes are worth keeping and which are not. It's bad economics, and it's a bad philosophy. Today it is the apartments we don't like, so they will be torn down because we think it will make our neighborhood prettier. Tomorrow, what will be next? Maybe someone doesn't like the way you decorate your home..."

Some City Heights residents can't help but feel overwhelmed. The San Diego Unified School District's long-range plan calls for the construction of middle and high schools in the same neighborhoods where Proposition MM's elementary schools will be built.

"Soon we'll be able to walk from school to school by their rooftops, they'll be so close together. You'll see a school on nearly every corner," predicted John Stump, a lawyer who has lived and worked in City Heights 25 years. Describing himself as a "concerned resident," Stump thinks the school district should replace some of the homes to be destroyed. "Just because they're not required to by law doesn't mean they can't have a policy," he said. "You're not required by law to give to charities, but you do because it's the right thing." Stump likens new schools to invaders from outer space. "The elementary schools are just the robot explorers. Each one requires two full city blocks. That's ten blocks out of City Heights," Stump said. "But they're not the battle cruisers. One high school alone will take five or six city blocks. The high school will be the starship Enterprise or the Battlestar Galactica. Are we landing a spacecraft or are we building a community?"

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