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San Diego’s Redistricting Commission is tasked with using Census data and public input to redraw the boundaries for the city’s council districts. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

As we near the end of a turbulent redistricting process, a major takeaway is that many diverse, underrepresented communities were let down by the commission. And once again, the consequences are especially dire for UC San Diego students.

The final district lines cut the UC San Diego campus in half; the campus west of the Interstate 5, where more than 10,000 undergraduate students live, has been severed from graduate housing and major student population centers to the east. The commission by a 6-3 vote deliberately chose to force these undergraduate students to share representation with La Jolla – with residents who live in homes valued from $1 million to $20 million – despite calls to move the campus to a different district. 

Meanwhile, students are still struggling to afford rising rents.

The housing crisis has forced many students to take drastic measures. A friend of mine lives in a repurposed living room and pays almost $1,000 a month in rent. The chair of the San Diego Housing Commission recently testified that the agency is receiving requests from local universities to assist with providing additional safe overnight parking lots due to the skyrocketing number of students living in cars.

This crisis did not occur overnight, nor does it just affect students. Decades of intentional policies actively excluded students and other low-income communities from wealthy, coastal, single-family home neighborhoods. La Jolla explicitly prohibited racial groups it labeled “undesirables” from living in the community for many decades. 

When housing discrimination became illegal in 1968, La Jolla used local zoning and land-use laws to accomplish the same objectives disguised as concerns for “community character” or the environment. Just last year, a La Jolla group led a lawsuit against UC San Diego’s Innovation Center, which included 2,000 new student housing units, despite the site being located in University City and falling outside of La Jolla’s planning boundaries. The same group became highly visible in the redistricting process, insisting that UC San Diego and all its surrounding neighborhoods “belonged” to City Council District 1.

Out of desperation, UC San Diego students organized around a simple idea: We must be drawn into a council district with similar communities who are willing to work with us to pursue housing and transportation solutions. To our great encouragement, the communities of District 6 welcomed us with open arms, in sharp contrast to La Jolla. Together, we organized more than 40 community-based organizations to create and support the San Diego Communities Collaboration map. This was the only map that did justice for San Diego’s diverse communities by creating five districts where people of color are the majority.

Instead of a new persons of color majority district consisting of Clairemont, Linda Vista, and Serra Mesa, the commission voted to maintain the status quo by giving the coastal region two districts. By splitting our campus, they diluted student voting power and reduced the likelihood of our needs being taken seriously. Their adopted map also lowered Asian American and Pacific Islander percentages in District 6 and Latino/a percentages in District 9, relative to the collaboration map they rejected.

These outcomes are not surprising if you consider who the commissioners are and how we got here. Five out of nine of the commissioners are White men over 50, all of whom voted against students. The two commissioners from coastal districts are both republicans, even though the Republican Party makes up less than 25 percent of each district. The Chairman, Tom Hebrank, is also a Republican who formerly served on the Board of the Lincoln Club. He is from District 9, which is only 13 percent Republican.

These commissioners simply do not reflect the diversity of San Diego, nor the experiences of most residents, and repeatedly proved themselves incapable of putting aside their own biases for the good of the city. No wonder the Commission has been incapable of handling the complex racial dynamics at the center of redistricting.

We cannot allow this to happen again in 10 years. Therefore, students intend to partner with other marginalized communities to pursue reforms to the redistricting process through a city charter amendment in 2022. Here are some reform ideas:

  • Detach the appointments from specific City Council seats. Many independent redistricting commissions do not tie commissioners to existing seats, including the county and state. Rather than ensuring geographic representation, this pushed commissioners to defend their personal districts as if they were elected politicians and resist any changes to the status quo.
  • Change the Appointing Authority. Retired judges may sound like a good idea, but a system with selection bias toward older people and attorneys has generated major negative repercussions for communities of color. We need an appointment authority that is both independent and representative of the community and its values.
  • Require representation on the commission. We will never achieve districts that reflect local communities unless the commissioners drawing them also reflect the community. New requirements should be added to ensure renters, students, and Black, indigenous and people of color are adequately represented on the commission itself.

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