Romelia Turner grew up in a house on 43rd and Market Street – a Mt. Hope home her parents purchased in 1972.
But now she lives in Hemet because for years – since she moved out of her parents’ home – she couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood in which she grew up. Before moving to Hemet, she lived in Spring Valley, El Cajon, La Mesa, and other parts of the county.
While Turner has long been priced out of southeastern San Diego, her heart remains there. She returns several times a week to attend service at the same church she grew up attending and to organize in the community through her job at Pillars of the Community.
In 2016, Turner helped organize and rally the community to elect City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe. But she couldn’t cast her own vote for Montgomery Steppe because she no longer lived in the city’s District 4.
“That broke my heart,” Turner said. “I’m not even voting with my people. My ballot doesn’t look like your ballot. These aren’t my people.”
Turner isn’t the only former resident of southeastern San Diego and District 4 who has found herself in that situation.
Southeastern San Diego has long been the cultural and political heart of the Black community in San Diego. But several forces, like housing costs, over-policing and a chronic underinvestment in the community, have made it increasingly difficult for Black people, especially, to remain there. Over the past several decades, Black people with roots in District 4 have up and left, moving east to places like Spring Valley, Lemon Grove, El Cajon and La Mesa, or leaving the county or state entirely.
The city council district that once consolidated Black political power has seen decreasing numbers of Black voters over the past few decades, as the population has dispersed and Black voters found themselves in east county. There, many feel disenfranchised – that their vote wouldn’t help them elect someone who cared about the issues important to them.
Mychal Odom, a Black studies professor at several local colleges, is an organizer with the International People’s Democratic Uhurr Movement, a group based in southeastern San Diego, but he lives in Spring Valley. Odom also organized for Montgomery Steppe, but couldn’t vote for her because he lives outside the city.
“It’s a real issue that the Black population has been pushed out of the district to some places where they overwhelmingly don’t have representation, like Spring Valley,” Odom said. The only place he feels represented where he can vote is on the La Mesa-Spring Valley School Board, he said.
But that may change soon. On Saturday, the San Diego County Independent Redistricting Commission voted to move forward with two draft maps that would allow many Black voters who have been forced out of the city’s District 4 to at least be able to vote with a higher concentration of Black voters at the county level.
The proposals would increase the Black population in a supervisorial district to more than 9 percent, higher than any of the current districts. The new district would also include significant numbers of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Latinos and immigrant and refugee populations that have similar values and voting patterns as Black people. The precise layout of the district varies slightly between the draft maps, but it would broadly bring neighborhoods in District 4 together with City Heights, Lemon Grove, Spring Valley, Rancho San Diego, La Mesa and El Cajon.
“We’re never going to have the numbers of population where we’re actually the highest population,” said Laila Aziz, director of operations for Pillars of the Community, one of the organizations that proposed the new supervisorial district. “What we need is to have trusting, meaningful relationships with other folks. We need our allies.”
‘People are Being Pushed Out’
The city’s historical center of Black culture and politics, District 4, has been undergoing a demographic shift for decades that has meant fewer Black people have been able to stay in the district – and in the city of San Diego as a whole.
Abdul Raqeeb, who was born and raised in San Diego, said when he returned to San Diego four years ago after spending 10 years in prison, his community had changed dramatically.
“When I go to the streets, I’m still looking for people I know, but they’re not here anymore,” Raqeeb said.
Raqeeb’s mom left San Diego to buy a house in Atlanta.
“You just get to a point in life where you want to own something, not be renting,” he said. Raqeeb is still living in San Diego, but he said it’s a struggle. He has two jobs, but money is tight.
“San Diego looks all beautiful, but it’s not,” he said.
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The population of San Diego County has shifted and changed over the past 30 years. This map showcases the distribution of Black residents throughout the county by Census tract between 1990 and 2020, with data sourced from IPUMS/NHGIS and Census population reports. / Graphic by Cam Rodriguez
Housing costs have been a major factor. A recent study by online real estate marketplace company Zillow found that San Diego is the worst place in the country for Black renters.
Up until the 1970s, the city’s Black population had been growing for decades, Odom said. Many people came for the economic opportunities that existed in shipyards, the aircraft industry and other forms of government and military employment. But as housing prices have increased over the past few decades, there was less opportunity.
“San Diego is a very hard place to live if you are a working-class Black person,” Odom said.
Odom has lived in San Diego since 1997, but he left for a few years to attend school and for work.
“We came back to a much smaller place to live and a much higher cost of living than when we left,” he said. Odom moved to Spring Valley, because it was more affordable and still close to southeastern San Diego.
And as other parts of the city become increasingly unaffordable, southeastern San Diego has also started to undergo gentrification, where a lower-income neighborhood’s character changes as wealthier people move into the area.
Longtime southeastern resident and activist Robert Tambuzi said that cultural displacement stems from inequitable economic opportunities and lending practices making it more difficult for Black residents to afford housing in the neighborhood.
“There’s a conscientious effort to get rid of and dismantle Black enclaves of power,” Tambuzi said. “It’s a violence that doesn’t shed blood, but creates the same problem, where you don’t have ownership, you don’t have equity.”
But there are other issues that have been driving people from the neighborhood. Chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, schools and more in the area means neighborhoods like Mountain View and Emerald Hills, home for decades to Black doctors, dentists and other professionals of high socioeconomic status, are no longer appealing.
Policing and incarceration have also factored into Black people leaving southeastern San Diego, said Malcolme Morgan, who now lives in La Mesa.
Morgan shifts in policing in the 1990s and early 2000s, put many Black men from certain generations in jail, removing them from neighborhoods with many homes owned by Black and Brown people. It made it difficult for parents and grandparents to pass on homes, causing further financial struggles and often resulting in Black homeowners selling homes instead of passing them on to the next generation.
After Morgan was incarcerated, he struggled to find housing because of his records. Morgan eventually got into low-income housing in La Mesa, but he too feels more connected to the community and politics in southeastern San Diego.
LaWana Richmond, a former resident of the Skyline and Paradise hills area, who also ran for the San Diego Unified School Board, moved to La Mesa in January.
“There are a lot of people who have moved from San Diego to La Mesa, to El Cajon because of affordability,” Richmond said. “And there are a lot of people who have left San Diego altogether during the pandemic because it was expensive.”
Richmond said the pandemic exacerbated the issue, since so many people in hospitality and tourism – an industry where many Black and Latino people work – was hit so hard.
The result of all these factors, Tambuzi said, is that he’s noticed a lot more people walking their dogs in the neighborhood – a classic sign that more middle- and upper-income White people have moved in.
A New Voice at the County
After seeing the changing demographics in the region, several community organizations – including Pillars of the Community, Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, the Majdal Center and the Asian Solidarity Collective – advocated for the county’s redistricting commission to create a new county supervisorial district.
They envisioned a district that encompassed the areas as far east as the city of El Cajon, Lemon Grove, La Mesa and Spring Valley. The proposed district would go south to include District 4 communities like Paradise Hills, Skyline and Encanto and west to include City Heights and some neighboring areas.
“The hope really is this new district will be a refugee, immigrant, people of color, working class district that for the first time has those folks at the forefront,” said Jeanine Erikat, policy associate with PANA. “What we’re proposing is something that you’ve never seen before.
Erikat said she saw similar trends among refugee communities – that even if they lived in El Cajon, major parts of their lives remained in City Heights. But right now those areas are divided between county districts.
And while the refugee and immigrant communities have some unique issues at the county, like language access and how the county spends refugee resettlement funds, there’s also overlap between communities on the issues important to them, Erikat said.
Housing affordability impacts the refugee population just as it has communities in the city’s District 4. Refugees who once settled in City Heights have been pushed into La Mesa and El Cajon.
Policing, too, is a concern for the different communities, especially East African refugees and their children.
“We’re still in an anti-Black society.” Erikat said.
Ramah Awad, a program manager with the Majdal Center, an adovcacy group for San Diego’s Arab population, told the county’s redistricting commission Saturday that she identified her Arab community as a subset of a broader community, that included Black communities and other immigrant and non-White communities.
“El Cajon should not be linked with rural areas,” Awad told commissioners. “It has different demographics. El Cajon has historically seen high levels of refugee resettlement.”
Morgan also noted that there is a religious connection with Muslim refugees, in particular. Black Muslims account for about a fifth of all U.S. Muslims, according to Pew Research Center. And nearly half of Black Muslims are converts to Islam, which means they have some of the highest conversion rates to the religion in the country.
But especially for the children and grandchildren of East African refugees, Morgan said, the alignment is a no-brainer.
“They are aware of their Blackness,” he said. “America won’t let them forget that.”
While the county’s redistricting commission has decided to move forward for now with maps that include the new district, not everyone is happy with the shift.
El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, for example, said at Saturday’s hearing that he had “some concerns” about the map because it separated El Cajon from its neighbors, like Santee and Alpine.
While many Black people in the proposed district think its creation would be important, some caution it wouldn’t ensure Black people in the county can have true representation on their priority issues.
Tambuzi said expanding the number of county districts would allow for more representation for all the communities in the coalition. Richmond also encouraged people to reach out to other elected officials who may be sympathetic to their concerns, and not just count on their representative.
“They need to be working to change the entire system, not just working to change a district,” Tambuzi said. “The reality of the situation is you can spend all your time focusing on whether this map is good, but unless we change the overall system, those in power will just keep us fighting over the crumbs that fall off the political table.”