This post has been updated.
City Heights could be San Diego’s richest poor neighborhood.
It has the highest concentration of nonprofit groups in San Diego County. And since 2000, two foundations alone have invested more than $265 million in the neighborhood of 70,000. That’s nearly the same amount the city of Chula Vista spends on its 260,000 residents annually.
But despite that mammoth injection of cash, the foundations that have made long-term commitments to the neighborhood – Price Philanthropies in 1993 and The California Endowment in 2010 – have little hard evidence to show they’ve improved the lives of residents there. (Disclosure: Price Philanthropies helps fund Voice of San Diego. The California Endowment funds Voice of San Diego’s Speak City Heights coverage.)
Nearly every researcher and community organizer you talk to in City Heights admits the needle hasn’t really moved on any statistical gauge. The community still performs worse than the county average when you look at income, employment, obesity rates, educational outcomes, crime – you name it. Any trends showing improvement tend to follow national trends, meaning the community hasn’t exactly rebounded from its lows.
More than two decades after the city declared a state of emergency in City Heights, it seems the community is still digging out from a legacy of overcrowding and disinvestment.
We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?
Great work. I do think the headline $265M since 2000 number is
confusing at best. What is that really comparable to? As noted, at least
$100M -- you may know more precisely -- went toward brick-and-mortar
improvements. That is to say, it purchased land and built buildings that
are now valuable assets for Price and others. Subtract the value of
those assets, maybe, then divide by 14 years, that's $11M/yr tops. Divide by 70,000 residents, that's $168.37 pp/yr. That $168.37 has helped anyone out of poverty should be seen as a tremendous success!
“The best thing you can do for the poor is not become one of them,” Rev. Ike.The efforts cited remind me of the city’s War on Poverty when it installed sidewalks and paved all the alleys in the poorest census tracks in San Diego, "investing" millions of dollars.The poverty rate did not change one iota but the construction workers that did the paving and the program administrators who lived out of the area did quite well. How not to become poor and improve neighborhoods is well documented, 1. Graduate from high school. 2. Do not have children until you are 20. 3. Be Married before you have children.
Thanks for the great reporting on City Heights! I agree that a powerful example is the City Heights skatepark.
On November 18th, the City Heights Rec Council cancelled what was supposed to be the last design meeting for the skatepark because a couple residents near the park are now speaking up against it. Because the funding for the park is from a state grant, the project must be completed on a very fast timeline to assure funding. Also, all other possible locations in City Heights have been looked at and eliminated.
On the 18th, the Mid-City Youth Council and possibly a hundred supporters asked that the upcoming December 4th meeting be the last design meeting so the project can move forward. Instead, the rec council scheduled it to be yet another meeting where the few residents near the park can express their opposition. The fact that a few residents can put a project at risk that will benefit the whole of City Heights is worrisome, especially when the project would be in an area zoned for active use, right next to a baseball field, and next to the freeway.
If you'd like more info on this on the upcoming meeting, please reach out to Martin at the Mid-City Youth Council. It will likely be held at the gymnasium and have a packed house of skatepark supporters.
Chris Brewster has hit the nail on the head in his comments below. The CHDC has extremely well qualified leadership in Ken Grimes, Hanan Bowman and others, who can provide the "Bloomberg" assessments that Chris suggests.
What if instead of constructing a 200-unit affordable-housing building, we gave the current residents a rent-reimbursement to live anywhere they like? I'm sure many of the current residents work outside of City Heights but can't afford to live near their work because of high rents. Also many cannot afford to live in a good school district because of high rents. So they all congregate in City Heights with other low-income folks. Doesn't seem like an ideal situation. Now, if you spend a lot of money and build a brand-new affordable-housing building. Would that change anything about the neighborhood besides giving people a more comfy space to live? What happens when the building gets old? Spend money to build another one?
Unlike Michael Robertson, I don't begrudge the charities or welfare, but I do think subsidies should consider a system that allows the recipients more flexibility to choose where they want to live. If a hotel maid wants to live in La Jolla because she works for the Sheraton, we should find a way to make that happen. Confining her to City Heights where the daily commute takes 2 hours and her kids attend a subpar school doesn't make sense. Once there's flexibility, then we know the residents of a neighborhood are truly those who choose to live there for good reason. Those are the residents who have the most invested in making their own neighborhood great. Then it won't feel like such an uphill battle anymore.
@Mike Section 8 rental vouchers (federal) allow users to rent anywhere. Problem is there is a waiting list of thousands for those vouchers. Need more and this idea also encourages balanced neighborhoods. Thing is tho there are more Sect8 rentals in City Heights than in any other area of the County. People like to be with their friends I guess?
Sometimes success can be measured by how many poor people still live in a neighborhood vs how many have been moved out by increased property values, rents, etc.. City Heights is not North Park nor does it aspire to be. Maybe, just maybe success has to do with enhancing how people live together and assist in building a common quality of life.
I've lived in City Heights since 1975 and have seen various waves of transition. Some by the movement of external factors (like wars. eg VietNam, Somalia, Middle east etc) and some by the internal self will of the people to improve their quality of life. I think City Heights is an astonishing example of self help and multi cultural integration for mutual benefit.
The City Heights CDC has always and still is at the forefront of defining strategies for mutual self help and was at the forefront of saving affordable housing for the people who live here and improving it. It was at the forefront of securing jobs at the commercial development activities of the philanthropist Price. It was also at the forefront of salvaging concessions from the freeway construction that was and is I-15. It is the organization that fights to capture and return park space and is probably responsible for the development of mroe park space than any inner city neighborhood (e.g. three new parks abut the freeway. It also enables local resident to maintain the existing parks as safe areas.
The CDC was actually the mover behind the renaming of City Heights from its former ESD name. It's the below the surface change that makes the neighborhood a liveable place. I have never seen a more clear example of it the other night, at dusk, while driving along University Ave and I saw demonstrators in teh streets against police brutality, while a open air theater was being shown at the local arts complex, while a new supermarket was holding a huge opening night and all the while must have been a thousand kids and families blasting a soccer ball around an elementary school playground under brilliant flood lights. This combustion of diversity, all engaged in wholesome community activities was to me a crowning example of the benefits of all the work that ash been done by local residents to own their neighborhood.
By the way. It wasn't Jack McGrory who created the infrastructure for change. It was the CDC who organized the planning group, the business association and the redevelopment agency whose money McGrory and Price/Wm Jones used to build the retail village. Need to do some fact checking sometimes. Besides they are all gone and the CDC remains doing its good work daily.
Wise charitable giving includes clear, measurable objectives, especially when this sort of money is involved. Certainly the givers can choose to spend money however they like, but like successful private corporations, successful charities regularly evaluate what works, what doesn’t and adjust accordingly. Michael Bloomberg, as an example, is enormously focused on outcomes in his charitable giving. If objectives are not clear and achievable, he doesn’t fund. Moreover, if projects don’t achieve goals, he stops funding. Having, “… little hard evidence to show they’ve improved the lives of residents there …” represents one of two things. It is either failure to meaningfully improve the lives of residents or failure to be able to objectively document that they have done so. Sad to see this much money spent on good intentions potentially unrealized.
As a postscript to the above, yesterday the World Health Organization issued a global report on drowning which was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Mr. Bloomberg is quoted in a related news release as follows with respect to global drowning prevention, "I believe that you can't manage what you don't measure.” Wise giving has measurable impacts.
I enjoy the author's work and applaud her willingness to write an article critical of the charities that are usually celebrated. However, this article did not consider the possibility that metrics such as average income or average graduation rates may simply be skewed by the transitional nature of the area.
City Heights has a constant influx of new people — immigrants and refugees especially — many of whom arrived with little more than the proverbial shirt on their back. Eventually, with the help of the social service programs available in City Heights, some of those destitute immigrants and refugees are able to establish themselves and start building wealth and health. And perhaps due to the lack of quality of life in City Heights, these "success stories" move to other, better neighborhoods. Perhaps these programs are working excellently to help those new arrivals adjust to life in the U.S. and move up and move on and move out of City Heights and into other neighborhoods where they are no longer counted in the City Heights average statistics. They're then replaced by the newcomers who are starting at square one. Looking at average income for the geographical area wouldn't show you that picture, because the population of that area is constantly changing. I have no idea whether that is what's actually happening, and maybe no one does, but I would have liked to see this article consider that possibility.
What percentage of residences in City Heights are owner-occupied? My guess is that it's a remarkably small proportion compared to other San Diego neighborhoods. What percentage of City Heights residents have lived in City Heights for more than, say, 10 years? The answers to these questions could shed light on whether we're seeing the effects of neighborhood churn. But really, this is the kind of thing that should be studied by social scientists using established methodologies that control for things like people moving in and out of the neighborhood.
@Jeremy Ogul I agree with your theory of families improving their situation and moving elsewhere. I've heard anecdotally that the Vietnamese population in ESD is aging and shrinking because the children of the immigrants moved to other areas.
Query , how many families and individuals have matriculated through city heights? Families do improve economic conditions and move on. Of course they are then replaced and hopefully the upward economic journey repeats itself.
Stats are rather static
To say you spent x amount of dollars without telling us exactly what you spent x amount of dollars doing is kind of useless. Like the Bi-Centennial celebration at Balboa Park. Chula Vista money is from taxpayers so its not a fair comparison. However that much money plus what that area should be receiving from the city of San Diego should do something and I believe it has in the area of overall attraction. A place I have no problem stopping if I need to get something while in the area. But to say the money is supposed to fix obesity, education system, crime rate is not fair. How far does 200 million go in terms of general maintenance in San Diego? I know how far an alignment should go vs how often I have to get one with these jacked up streets. I think the city said that Qualcomm stadium needs about 70 million in repairs alone. So how far should 265 million go in a condensed area like City Heights?
It's great to see VOSD ask the fundamental question of whether welfare improves people's lives.
In spite of more than a trillion dollars spent by the US, there's really no evidence it has improved people's lives over the long run. Welfare creates negative incentives rewarding people for the opposite behavior that is most beneficial to them. It discourages people from working and making smart life choices like postponing having children and getting married.
@Michael Robertson How do you know "there's really no evidence it has improved people's lives over the long run"? Are you a scholar of social welfare, sociology or economics? How much time have you spent looking for evidence that would refute your claim?
Good questions Jeremy. The broadest measure is looking at the poverty level. Poverty was rapidly declining in the US until the war on poverty. Since then we've spent more than a trillion dollars and the poverty rate is not improving. Here's an article you might find interesting: http://bit.ly/1epwyJc You probably understand incentives. Traditional welfare rewards people with money if they make poor decisions. So naturally they do. This is why we have multi-generational welfare now. Africa is another example. Not too long ago Asia and Africa were on similar economic levels. Africa became a welfare continent and has languished. Asia had free market capitalism and powerhouses like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea emerged.
The bottom line is that giving people free stuff doesn't encourage them to make smarter decisions or work harder. These are the only ways to fundamentally improve people's lives. Given how our welfare system is structured, it encourages them to make dumber life choices so nobody should be surprised that there aren't long term positive benefits.
@Michael Robertson Thanks for the link. I understand the theory behind perverse incentives, and I'm sure there is plenty of evidence to be found for that from various failed attempts at "traditional" social welfare. I can think of some anecdotal evidence from people I've met in my own life who totally abused the system. I think, however, there are also probably certain programs or strategies that have been shown to be more effective at creating change. Again, I can think of anecdotal evidence from my own life where people were able to turn their lives around because of certain welfare options they had. But anecdotes and intuitions don't necessarily represent the whole truth. We need accurate data and sound methodologies to even begin to approach the truth, and this is why we need social science. I guess that's the only point I'm trying to make here.
@Michael Robertson What do you think qualifies as welfare here? A YMCA? A skate park? Health programs? An upgraded library and police station? Improvements in housing overall?
None of this sounds like it is helping poor people to become dependent, which is the traditional criticism of welfare. They sound like raising a neighborhood to the level of other neighborhoods, like yours, perhaps.
Welfare is anything that is given to people without them paying for it. This often breeds a sense of entitlement especially when it's politically driven to garner votes because the politicians preach dependency. Police don't police just one group of people so I wouldn't consider that welfare, but housing improvements I definitely would. Is there a bigger failed government initiative than housing projects? They're a great illustration about what happens when people are given something with nothing demanded in return. They need not act responsibly to garner this benefit nor to keep it. Consequently they trash it. They become dangerous places occupied by criminals. It breeds the exact negative actions I'm talking about. People may feel like they're helping people with a housing project but in fact they're not. They're rewarding poor decisions and warehousing people together who emulate those around them reinforcing bad decision making.
@Michael Robertson I'm not aware of specific housing projects in SD that have the same reputation as the notorious projects in cities like Chicago and New York. Maybe I'm missing something.
Are you suggesting there are some here that show the hazards of housing projects? Can you name them?
If the goal is to reduce poverty then free stuff should only given to those who make beneficial decisions - the exact opposite of how it is doled out today.
@Michael Robertson @Randy Dotinga Michael acts as if we're still building projects like Cabrini Green and Pruitt-Igoe, which were torn down long ago. While their residents share some of the blame in their failure, Michael overlooks other causes, such as lack of maintenance funds and the design of the projects that encouraged crime (high rise buildings with few "eyes on the street"). Lessons were learned and newer affordable/low-income housing is rarely built at this scale. The affordable units at the east end of Poway are one example of a successful project.
To say that all low-income housing breeds negative behavior is offensive, especially when some of these residents are veterans who fought for our country. Perhaps if Mr. Robertson had returned home injured from war with few employment options, he might look upon affordable housing differently.
There's no such thing as affordable housing. Prices of goods are set by the market not by a govt edict. Having other people pay for it that aren't using it doesn't change the price of anything - only who pays for it.
The problem with government housing is that it rewards negative behavior. If we want more responsible people we should reward positive behavior not negative. Changing the size of density of the housing project doesn't alter the incentive of this welfare program which is the root problem. Welfare programs need to reward positive behavior.
Your claim I don't care about veterans is a desperate act by someone who apparently cannot debate the merits of welfare so must change the topic.
When Sotomayor first set foot in the Bronxdale Houses in 1957, the project encapsulated New York's promise.
The first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security grew up in public housing in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the former President's work with Habitat for Humanity stems from his early days as a resident of public housing. Do you know which one?
America: We will give anyone an opportunity but success comes from individual hard work and dedication.
@Jeremy Ogul @Michael Robertson I ate government supplied cheese growing up so I'm not saying that 100% of the money is wasted. The question is whether the government distributing welfare is more effective or less effective than letting Americans keep more of their money and distribute welfare themselves either through charitable giving, non-profits, churches and person to person assistance.
So what is it called when the government bail out people who bought houses because they assumed the prices would continue to rise forever and bailed out the stock market? The car companies that gave us deadly vehicles? Manipulating the stock market to keep it afloat. Very much negative behavior from supposedly smart people.
I don't understand the math. The article says a lot of money is poured into City Heights. But it says, "And since 2000, two foundations alone have invested more than $265 million in the neighborhood of 70,000. That’s nearly the same amount the city of Chula Vista spends on its 260,000 residents annually." So Chula Vista spends about $1,000 per person per year. City Heights over the last fourteen years has spent about $274 per person per year. So that doesn't seem like a lot comparatively.
I've lived near City Heights for over twenty years and it sure feels a lot better there than it used to. And I hope the new YMCA will strengthen the connections with nearby communities.
I do not know what statistical measures are being used to measure progress in City Heights, but I have seen a huge difference over the past 20 years. First of all, the neighborhood just feels safer. There are few, if any, drug deals going on in broad daylight, and no longer are people scared about driving through the area, much less walk through it. Secondly, there have been hundreds of dilapidated units that have been rehabilitated and made available at rents affordable to low-income families. Ask those people if they think there has been progress in the neighborhood. Thirdly, there have been qualitative improvements made to the lives of those who live there - e.g. parks and a recreation center being added and an upgrade to rapid transit. The fact that many middle-income people have moved to City Heights over the past 20 years, shows that the neighborhood has made huge strides, and continues to do so.