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Albert Velasquez stands in front of Montgomery-Waller Community Park on December 9, 2017. Velasquez is the chair of the Otay Mesa-Nestor Planning Group. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Strolling through the southern San Diego neighborhood of Nestor isn’t easy.  

The walking path to the Fernandez Birrieria taco shop on Flower Street isn’t continuous. Sidewalks are often incomplete; other times, not there at all. Traffic leaving Interstate 5 clogs Coronado Avenue with fumes during rush hour. San Diegans driving through Nestor might even assume they’re actually in Imperial Beach — an irritating fact to longtime residents who’ve watched their community be shaved away as other neighborhoods annexed parts of it. 

“That’s why I joined the planning board, because we had an identity crisis,” said Johnny Swanson, a 30-year Nestor resident and member of the Otay Mesa-Nestor Planning Group.  

Nestor and other lower-income communities face another crisis: climate change. Because older and poorer communities are more vulnerable and exposed to problems of a warming planet, governments are trying to spend money combatting those ills. That’s precisely what the city of San Diego’s Climate Equity Index is supposed to do.  

At least in the case of Nestor, that index isn’t working well. Instead of flagging Nestor as a community in need, the index flagged its much newer and richer neighbor to the east: Ocean View Hills. Nestor’s poverty rate is twice as high as Ocean View Hills. 

An incomplete sidewalk along Elm Avenue in the Nestor neighborhood. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“That’s a stark contrast,” said Richard Cuevas, who moved to Nestor from east Oakland in 1989 and is a member of the Otay Mesa Nestor planning group. “The issues we have down here are getting swept under the rug just like they always do.”  

San Diego uses the index to help decide where to spend its money.  

“The Climate Equity Index is a tool that we’re using citywide to help us prioritize funding in infrastructure projects,” said Brittany Bailey, a senior policy advisor to Mayor Todd Gloria. 

Come 2022, the city will spend almost $7 million specifically for climate equity projects. That pot of money, the Climate Equity Fund, could grow if the city funnels other money into it. The state, for instance, sends money to cities reserved for historically underserved communities. The city could use that to help those areas combat heat waves, sea level rise and drought and other challenges climate change brings. 

Councilwoman Vivian Moreno asked Mayor Gloria in a memo this year to fund over a dozen sidewalk improvement projects and new streetlights in Nestor to encourage walking and biking – a necessary transportation shift to help the city cut down on automobile use.  

But most of Nestor doesn’t qualify for any climate equity funding. The index rates communities in terms of their “access to opportunity.” A large portion of Nestor ranks as a “high opportunity area,” while Ocean View Hills, with a lower poverty rate, is rated as a “moderate opportunity area.”  

Ocean View Hills, seen here on Dec. 12, 2021, is a community park of the Nestor neighborhood. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“What are you classifying as Nestor? Because even within this community there are pockets of affluence but there’s also this vast group of folks that are lower-middle class or working class,” said Albert Velasquez, who chairs the Otay Mesa Nestor planning group. 

This historic ranching community of about 3,700 people has as many pockets of ranch homes as it does mobile home parks. An average salary in Nestor is $61,800. The city’s own index shows that, compared to Ocean View Hills, Nestorians have worse access to the internet and suffer more from the cost burden of transportation, overcrowding, exposure to pesticide use and impaired bodies of water. The sewage-polluted Tijuana River valley is Nestor’s backyard 

Governments in California are developing tools like San Diego’s Climate Equity Index with the good intention of identifying and supporting communities in need. But these tools are not perfect.  

“It can’t be looked at in isolation … It’s also about how people within our underserved communities move around the city and gain access to public facilities,” said Alyssa Muto, director of the city’s Sustainability and Mobility Department. 

What she means is, richer neighborhoods that aren’t flagged by the index can get funding for a project that connects it with another that is. So, for instance, the city might consider a bike lane connecting a poorer community with a richer one – that could still count as an equity project.  

The city updated its index in 2021 from an older 2019 version, increasing the neighborhoods that qualify. Greg Pierce, an urban planner who studies climate and environmental inequities at UCLA, said that’s not necessarily a good thing.  

“We already don’t allocate enough money to make meaningful change even in areas that need it most,” Pierce said. “Politically, tools (like this) can be built to be inclusive but at the end of the day, if only 10 percent of these (neighborhoods) get funding, what’s the point of having 50 percent qualify. It just creates frustration.” 

In other words, Pierce said making more neighborhoods eligible increases competition for money in the neediest neighborhoods.  

Councilman Raul Campillo discovered some communities in his district no longer qualified after the update. The index equally weighs 41 variables, from climate risks to environmental hazards to socioeconomic challenges.  

“When you look at an indicator like asthma rate… being weighed equally to housing cost burden… it means a lot of these census tracts are being dinged or getting better scores than they would have,” Campillo said. “The Climate Equity Index has cut out portions of communities that are really being left behind.” 

Cuevas said Nestor knows that story well. San Diego’s City Hall is 14 miles from Nestor. Cuevas said sometimes neighborhood residents would try to lodge complaints at city hall in Imperial Beach, just two miles away, only to be turned away.  

“All these other entities were always getting funding because they had people to go to,” Cuevas said. “We were losing our identity as a community.”  

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