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UCSD students don’t want to be in the same City Council district as La Jolla anymore.
In public testimony and letters to the San Diego Redistricting Commission, which is in the process of redrawing the city’s political boundaries, several students and former students said the UCSD community has more in common with the communities to its north and east — and they want to be in a district that reflects their interests.
“Many residents of District 1 look, live and advocate very differently than the average student,” said Aidan Lin, a UCSD student and associate vice president of the Associated Students’ of UC San Diego’s Office of Local Affairs, at one recent hearing. “Our current arrangement packs thousands of students living on or near campus in this different living environment, stifling their voices and their will to participate in civic matters. And who can blame them?”
The students who have been participating in the redistricting process noted that they have more in common, for instance, with University City, Carmel Valley and Mira Mesa than La Jolla. They’re advocating that UCSD and the other communities where students tend to live be a part of City Council District 6, which currently includes Sorrento Valley, Mira Mesa and the Convoy District.
According to preliminary 2020 Census population counts, today’s District 1 has a slightly higher population than the target population set for each district. Each district must have roughly the same population size. Right now, that target is 153,878 people per district and District 1 has 166,534 — roughly 12,600 people more.
This data is still preliminary and could change, but it suggests that the district will need to lose some communities. District 6’s preliminary numbers show it under the target population, but only by about 1,400 people.
The students highlighted several issues that they believe should separate them from La Jolla, in particular. They include transportation, differences in demographics and where they spend their time. But the biggest issue by far is housing.
“As a student who is already living in too expensive housing, when we go out, we go to Convoy or Miramar, even Mira Mesa, for burritos and beer,” said Chad Hamlin, a UCSD student and University City resident. “We never go to La Jolla because we simply cannot afford it. Our community is UCSD and east, not west.”
Another student, Bradley Liu, wrote a letter to the commission in which he noted that watching his friends struggle with housing has motivated him to start using his voice more in civic matters.
“I’m really hoping to see more housing matters decided with student interests in mind, which would come as a result of increased representation from better-drawn district lines,” Liu wrote.
In an interview, Lin said housing struggles have become even more acute for students because the pandemic has made on-campus housing even more difficult to obtain. Many second-year students, who are in San Diego for the first time after attending classes mainly online, are coming to the region and having to find off-campus housing immediately.
The University City area is undergoing its first community plan update in decades. That has been one of the motivating factors for students in this redistricting push, Lin said. He also serves on the Community Plan Update Subcommittee in the University Community Planning Group.
“It’s not just the immediate housing need for students, but the long-term planning that it takes to allow more affordable housing for the future,” Lin said. “La Jolla and other communities in District 1 really value their single-family housing.”
Lin said the community plan update process is already showing how student voices are not being included in major regional decisions. For example, while people between ages 20 and 29 make up 26 percent of the population of University City, Lin said he is the only person below 25 who sits on his subcommittee and is only one of a handful to sit on the broader planning group.
He also pointed to a 2019 survey put out by the planning group as part of its community plan update as evidence that student voices are being shut out of civic life in the region. While roughly half of the planning area identify as White, White people made up nearly three quarters of survey respondents and while roughly a quarter of the population is between 20 and 29, they made up only 5 percent of survey respondents.
“To me, it’s very clear that there are students who care a lot about local issues, especially when it affects them,” he said. “But the problem is when you have districts and communities set up in a way that demotivates students from participating, that can shut us down. When you build a college campus atmosphere that cares about local politics because students have an avenue to participate, then students will have more involvement in local politics.”
Students aren’t the only ones who are advocating for this change. Their desire to have these communities join with communities in today’s District 6 line up with the goals of other groups, too.
Cynthia Suero-Gabler, a board member of the Asian Pacific American Coalition, said during the recent redistricting commission hearing that she also supports that move. Suero-Gabler said that by adding communities like Carmel Valley and UCSD to District 6, the population of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the district would increase to more than 40 percent. Right now, in today’s District 6, which is considered the city’s Asian-empowerment district, Asians make up roughly 35 percent of the population.
“This is important to me as an Asian American,” Suero-Gabler said. “That we have a district that celebrates our cultural diversity and really amplifies our voices.”
At Wednesday’s redistricting commission hearing, several Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations showed up to advocate for a map that would include UCSD in District 6. One organization, Neighborhood Voices San Diego, even presented a map, which included UCSD, north University City and Sorrento Valley in District 6.
Melanie Cohn, director of regional policy and government affairs at Biocom California, the statewide trade association for life sciences that is headquartered in San Diego, also spoke during the redistricting commission meeting. Cohn said the life science hub in the region has expanded in Sorrento Valley, Mira Mesa and University City, but District 1 is often represented by someone from La Jolla, who has very specific interests related to development and housing and “has traditionally not been interested in the future of the life science industry.”
“As this is the largest employment center in the city, we really think that it deserves representation that looks out for the future of the biotech community,” she said.
But other groups are advocating that District 1 remain largely the way it is. The University Community Planning Group’s official redistricting stance is that all the areas within its purview — that includes UCSD and these other areas — remain together in District 1. People from other organizations, like the La Jolla Community Planning Association and the La Jolla Shores Association, also told the redistricting commissioners on Wednesday that they wanted UCSD to remain in District 1.
Valerie Ramey, a UCSD professor and resident of south University City, which would remain in District 1 under the Neighborhood Voices San Diego map, asked the commissioners to keep the University City planning area together in District 1.
The entire planning area was named for university “because the university is the common interest,” Ramey said.
“UC San Diego forms a hub for District 1 around which the city’s principle economic engine, biotech, evolves,” said Chris Nielsen, the planning group’s chair, in an interview. “We understand the common environmental and economic issues. That is where we come from.”
Nielsen said that the student housing issue is a valid one — and one that the planning group has been taking into account. As part of the plan update, the planning group has been looking at how to provide affordable housing. There are some limits and challenges, including the fact that University City has very little unbuilt land.
“But that doesn’t mean it can’t change,” Nielsen said. “We just have to look at how we can use mixed-use development and how parts of the community can redevelop to serve all income levels.”
Nielsen said that regardless of how redistricting turns out, solving the region’s housing issues is going to take a lot of time and work.
Lin agrees that simply putting these communities in a different district won’t solve their housing woes.
“But it will help,” he said. “[University Community Planning Group], District 1 and local representation gets wrapped up into this one big bubble and our voices get overpowered. If we have someone who is willing to stand up for us, we’ll have a clear voice in the right direction.”