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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Housing Justice in San Diego

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

I've lived in San Diego for most of my life. I was born here, grew up here, left at 18, September 2006, and returned September 2011, 5 years later. And to be fair, I left San Diego for college in the very far-off land of Los Angeles. When I returned, though I visited San Diego quite often, it was clear that gentrification had hit hard pushing out people from areas that I was familiar with, but not as the newest "hot spot."


My grandmother lived in the now-forgotten community of Frontier. Then, when my grandparents married eventually relocated to City Heights. That was where they stayed until my grandmother died in 1997 and then my grandfather moved to his hometown in central Illinois in 2002. The house in City Heights was at the end of the street, where the end went into an open field, unfinished. I remember walking to family friends' houses, or, merely sitting on the porch. I also recall a City Heights that was not what it is today. The racial makeup, and overall diversity, were different then than it is now, at least in my memory.


Plane in distance in sky flying into San Diego over highway and green trees and grass

Interestingly, a recent research dissertation stated that City Heights has been hit with rising rent and has not changed much ethnically or racially (Theodos, 2022.) However, as a young child, I recall the demographic being different than it is now, and I would state that, anecdotally, there has been a shift. Granted, that was in the 1990s when I was a child. My father went to Hoover High School, and I spent a considerable amount of time at my grandparents'. I remember late-night gatherings, shared food, and a vibrant community that, not without its problems, overall loved each other as a community. I also recall gang activity, police tape, and a high rate of police presence because of their assumed ideas of the neighborhood and its residents. Despite this, some of my fondest memories were from that neighborhood, but it certainly was not the gentrified community it is now. This only goes to highlight the changing landscape of San Diego, and its continual shift and pushout of residents and generations of families.


City outline at night in evening downtown San Diego with dark blue skies and other buildings

San Diego is deemed "America's Finest City," but, if its residents can barely hold on, how is it "fine"? It's clear that housing rates are astronomical, developers swoop in and devastate cities, there is a blatant disregard for climate and environment, and developers are still complaining about San Diego's difficult circumstances to build more, when we have enough housing, it's just a matter of affordable housing. Housing is so bad, that the support cannot maintain enough momentum with the way that the cost of living is spiking. These are clear problems, but then, there are additional issues that connect to sustainability and humanity, and that is even in the cases where housing is affordable (and I say that loosely,) the treatment of those who are often using subsidies includes neglect and abuse by landlords and management.


A new law recently was passed that aims to protect renters as it relates to evictions. While great in theory, the issue is that this does not protect most renters, nor does it consider a tenant's historical payments on time if they are struggling for say, one month, and theoretically, a manager or landlord could come up with an excuse to evict tenants. The level of manipulation I faced even during the pandemic was clear when there was an attempt to provide a 3-day pay or quit when we were protected under the law, and it was painted as if it ended at the end of 2020. With that, what happens to some of San Diego's most vulnerable populations?



Sunset with multicolored sky and silhouette of trees

California's Section 8, or HUD housing, aims to provide affordable housing to low-income individuals. A particular HUD apartment complex, Sorrento Tower, in the Bay Ho area, is for disabled individuals and older people, based on sliding scale and income. This is merely one example, though, of how protections are minimal and many of the efforts do not actually go as far as we need. Many of its residents are often disabled and have lower incomes, and have few options or choices available to them outside of this complex and the few others. Meanwhile, the waitlist for vouchers and affordable housing can be up to 10 years. This building is subsidized by HUD, but managed by Royal Property Management. Many residents have lived there for a substantial amount of time, and are an extremely diverse group. Yet, these residents, already often minoritized or marginalized by society in "America's Finest City" and its dehumanization of working-class or impoverished individuals, have been neglected time and time again.


The main manager is a White woman who has said before that individuals can use derogatory and racist remarks. One White man had hurled sexist and racist remarks at female and Asian residents, and when reported to the manager, she has been quoted saying, “Anyone can say anything to anyone”. Perhaps, on the surface, this could seem like a matter of mere neglect. Yet, Sorrento Tower evicted a Black man for the use of the word "cracker." Meanwhile, a White woman who lives in the building has gone on to harass its residents for several years, stalking residents, watching them from the stairwells, cornering wheelchair users and individuals with vision impairment, and there are several restraining orders against her by the residents. However, management has done nothing. Furthermore, many residents who are multilingual, of Asian descent, or otherwise a Person of Color, have been disregarded, where racism is an evident and recurring event, but it is allowed. This has fostered a culture of dehumanization at a U.S.-funded building.


When reporting these events to the nonprofit which is connected with the housing authority, it was stated that management has attempted to handle this, but, it is unlikely seeing as not only does management allow for continued abuse by a single resident they refuse to evict, while allowed for continual abuse of People of Color, they also neglect many of the concerns by the residents. For instance, common area bathrooms have been locked for 2 years. In a building where there are older individuals and disabled people, this can impede their way of living and access to foundational facilities. Maintenance has entered units without consent or notice, citing that they "have keys and we will use them." In fact, when discussed with the manager, it was stated that residents are required to let them in even without a notice. This is an abuse of power. There is no consistent manager on site, and when emergencies have happened, it is impossible to reach a person in the office. A quick Google search will find that when this was also discussed with the manager, she is cited as saying, "It doesn't concern me and I'm not responsible." Residents often do not have access to the primary office during business hours, elevators have been down that prevented many of those with physical impairments incapable of either going to their building or leaving, and those who could use stairs were unable as they do not have access to the emergency stairwell. Previously, they had an agreement with the parking lot across the street where residents and their guests could use the unused spaces, however, they did not renew that agreement and a population that is already at risk of isolation now has no guest parking, and residents who do not have one of the few assigned spots have to find street parking. And, it is important to note, that many curbs have since been painted red, further reducing accessible parking.


Balboa Park building in front of bright blue sky and clouds in sky in Spanish architecture style

Sorrento Tower has continued to perpetuate many of the historical injustices against People of Color. They have allowed preferential treatment to occur, continue to ostracize individuals, and have a blatant disregard and neglect of individuals in the building. In a society that already undervalues disabled individuals, where anti-Blackness in the fabric of our society is evident, anti-Asian hate is still infiltrating dominant narratives and has no intention to change. When posters are not present of tenants' rights, or at minimum, complaint lines, when it is an endless maze of who to contact, only for a response that there is nothing they can do, what happens next?


These policies that we see for protection feel often like what Paulo Freire calls false generosity. These policies give the illusion that the people are being protected, but real protection must begin holding these organizations, landlords, and managers accountable. Real protection comes in the form of rent control, not a measly cap of 5%+ Consumer Price Index of $2,500 rent, which becomes $250 per month at minimum, but likely higher. San Diego is far from America's Finest City. At best, it's the Land of Sunshine and Dehumanization. This is not isolated to San Diego, of course, but perhaps San Diego could choose to model other practices and policies that truly humanize its people, rather than humanizing developers and organizations that have little regard for humanity.


This is also why my next research will be focusing on the intersection of education and housing justice. We need to look at how to educate those on change, their power and experiences, using their innovative beliefs and practices, and to start making noise. Several years ago, I was interviewed about the rent increase by KPBS' Amita Sharma. In there, I was quoted as saying, "I think we need to stop being afraid of talking about money too because it is such a stigma to not have enough money to pay for things...I think if we break through that, it would be easier to be like `Hey, I don’t have any money and neither do you; and we should be really angry about this and start telling people, no I don’t want to pay this anymore." I still stand by this. We need to speak up. Start making noise.


For me, my research will be one effort. The next is community organizing. The continual dehumanization needs to stop. Housing justice is necessary in San Diego, with rent and cost of living, but also with the treatment and protection of its tenants. We cannot allow developers and management companies to retain more rights and humanization as an inanimate company than the actual human beings they house.



Two young children's silhouettes running during sunset over beach in San Diego

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