An aerial view of the UC San Diego campus. Photo courtesy of UCSD.

The San Diego Redistricting Commission is currently in the process of establishing new boundaries for the city’s nine council districts. Anyone bothering to watch the latest two virtual meetings of the commission can’t help but be impressed by the enthusiasm and tenacity of the numerous UC San Diego students who offered their input during the public comment section of the hearings.

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On both nights, the students argued vociferously that any new boundaries (based on 2020 census figures) should involve moving the UCSD campus out of its traditional District 1 location and into District 6, which would create a student and Asian-American and Pacific Islander empowerment district. 

In doing so, students hammered home their two-fold rationale for such a bold move—namely, that UCSD students share little in common with the older, wealthier, primarily white homeowners residing in La Jolla, and that the affordable housing needs of UCSD students are constantly ignored by the District 1 power structure, thus creating a housing crisis for many students. The severity of the UCSD student housing crisis became painfully obvious in the course of emotional public comments.

However, at the risk of seeming to put a damper on the fire lit by these students, I contend this movement is incorrectly conflating the issue of affordable housing with more distinct redistricting ambitions. By placing the blame for this housing crisis on the perceived big-bad-wolf of rich La Jolla homeowners and politicians, they are misleading the public regarding the root of the problem and curiously letting their own university administration off the hook.

The past two sessions of the Redistricting Commission have focused on determining a final preliminary redistricting map. This product will be used as a foundation for incorporating any necessary changes reflecting the additional community input to be captured and refined in the next five weeks. The commission hopes to meet its goal of generating a final map by the Dec. 15 deadline, as mandated by City Charter. 

Much of the debate occurring during these two sessions (last Thursday’s lengthy session was adjourned until Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 5:30) has focused on discussing the merits of two specific draft maps. The first, the so-called “Chair’s Map,” is a draft map proposed by Commission Chair Thomas Hebrank. It offers what many consider to be a fair and reasonable compromise capable of balancing many competing community interests, but one portrayed as providing only incremental changes to the current map. 

The second map, the “San Diego Communities Collaborative Map”, has won a high level of support from numerous organizations advocating for student and/or AAPI empowerment. This map, among other things, proposes moving the UCSD campus from District 1 and into District 6 boundaries, further increasing the AAPI population in the already designated AAPI empowered District 6.

The UCSD students who have spoken at the Redistricting Commission hearings share one thing in common — their disdain for the Chair’s Map. According to their input, the map keeps the diverse UCSD student body unfairly tethered to a staid La Jolla community that wields undue political influence in District 1 and supposedly impedes student access to affordable off-campus housing, apparently because the powers-that-be (comprised of wealthy single-family homeowners) choose to ignore the desperate need for low-cost apartments and condos in the university area.

The stories told at the hearings of students struggling to find affordable off-campus housing, including references to some students being forced to live in their cars, provided a community service by truly illuminating the housing problem for people in all San Diego City Council districts to understand.

In regard to pursuing redistricting objectives during the ZOOM hearings, it’s one thing for UCSD students to express their lack of comradeship with the wealthy homeowners of La Jolla, though this sometimes made for the too easy emotional expression of rhetorical flourishes (i.e., references to a history of colonization, exploitation, and racism by the traditional white power structure in La Jolla).

However, I question the use of the housing issue as a reason for moving large segments of District 1 into District 6. The blame for this situation should not be placed primarily at the hands of La Jolla political dynamics. Instead, students should direct their attention to the people who have created this situation—the UCSD and state-level UC system administrators who decided to grow the campus’s enrollment to 41,000 students while knowing full well nothing is being done to create more affordable on or off campus housing for their enormous student body. How responsible is that, especially since the pricy nature of San Diego’s real estate is no secret?                    

I sympathize with the housing plight of UCSD students. I have watched as my wife assisted her grandson (a student at the University of San Diego) in his search for a reasonably priced off-campus apartment. Such housing is hard to find. But the search is necessary because USD does not have on-campus housing for juniors and seniors.

However, even if the USD campus, located in Linda Vista, were to be moved from District 2 to District 7, as envisioned by Linda Vista’s current wish to be entirely located in one city council district, I don’t understand how affordable low-cost housing in the immediate vicinity would suddenly appear. The problem would no doubt linger.

In this scenario, I wouldn’t blame my city councilmember for this lack of progress. Instead, I would  look in the direction of the USD administrators and ask that, in light of California’s red-hot housing market and accompanying predictions that the market will not suffer any foreseeable decline, what does the university expect to do in the immediate future regarding the building of more on-campus housing?

UCSD students need to start having that same kind of discussion with their university leaders. Don’t look to new City Council boundaries for a solution. Rather, take advantage of the current mobilization efforts and aim all that fervid energy at the people that admitted their housing-impacted colleagues to UCSD and then bragged about the record numbers of students enrolled in the university.  Tell them to do the responsible thing — more on-campus housing or fewer students.  

Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.