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The urban community of City Heights is far from the richest in San Diego. The majority of its residents are low income and struggling. But they have a powerful advocate in their corner: The City Heights Community Development Corporation, which is dedicated to making a difference for tens of thousands of residents.

“We provide quality affordable housing, we promote livable neighborhoods, and we support economic development investment in the community,” Ken Grimes, the agency’s executive director since 2010, said.

City Heights has a long and vibrant history going back to the days when it was a city of its own. But it didn’t have enough businesses to raise the taxes necessary to keep up sidewalks and streets, so eventually City Heights became a community of 16 neighborhoods in San Diego. Then along came the challenges of the 1970s and 1980s.

“City Heights’ businesses were suffering because people were driving out of the community and down the freeway to the shopping centers in the Mission Valley area to go shopping,” Grimes recalls.

Meanwhile refugees from Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central America (and subsequently East Africa) changed the ethnic makeup of City Heights, and an influx of cheap new apartment buildings contributed to unsightly streetscapes. Community residents felt more and more neglected amid deteriorating roads, sidewalks and streetlights.

“Caltrans bought a huge sway of land and left all these properties empty resulting in burning sites, prostitution, drug deals,” Grimes said.

Caltrans built Interstate 15 in the middle of the City Heights community, dividing it into two. Many residents were upset about the new project, until a community garden project gave residents an opportunity to work together. Connections between neighbors and more organizations contributed to a successful push for new schools, new shopping centers, parks and a City Heights police station.

“It made people feel like they could make an impact,” Grimes said.

This group of City Heights community members became the City Heights Community Development Corporation, incorporated in 1981. Now, the agency continues to celebrate and enhance the community by promoting quality affordable housing to low-income families, and through offering numerous community development programs. Among other things, it helps residents maintain and rehabilitate their existing homes.

In addition, the CHCDC assists residents who want to find jobs.

“A lot of community members from other countries aren’t sure how to search for jobs, prepare a resume and/or interact with employers because there are cultural, language and even professional differences,” Grimes said.

The agency’s staff helps them understand how to succeed on the job in the United States. City Heights is now the most diverse community in San Diego with 57 different languages spoken.

A “Resident Self-Sufficiency” team helps residents with money, budgeting, job searches and accessing needed resources. Agency staffers are also available to work with local businesses as part of the Economic Development Program. The organization has several other community development programs in City Heights as well. The Active Transportation program trains community members to advocate for better transportation options, including more bike lanes and safer pedestrian walkways. The Neighborhood Rehabilitation program renovates unsafe homes for low-income owners who can’t afford to maintain them. The Community Engagement program works with the neighborhoods in the two major parks of City Heights, Colina Del Sol and Teralta Park to make them more accessible and safer for families.

Grimes is especially proud that the agency staff is diverse in a variety of ways that reflect City Heights.

“It’s a great place to work and it’s representative of the community,” Grimes said.

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