Connie Zuniga stood outside the home on Commercial Street that she grew up in as a kid, pointing to empty cat food cans and plastic wrappers littered across the sidewalk while the Orange Line trolley rolled through the street.
“It’s not gonna be picked up,” Zuniga said.
Along the entire block, pieces of litter lined the patches of grass between the sidewalk and the street. In a nearby alley, what appeared to be human feces covered parts of a building wall.
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The task of cleaning up the neighborhood is something community members have been taking into their own hands for decades. In 2000, a group of them helped start the Central Commercial Maintenance Assessment District, bringing together blocks of Sherman Heights, Grant Hill, Stockton and Logan Heights with the goal of clearing the streets and beautifying the neighborhood.
Now, 20 years later, some of the property owners who helped establish the district are trying to dissolve it – and Zuniga is one of them. After more than a year of conflict between stakeholders and other challenges in the neighborhood, a handful want out altogether.
The Central Commercial Maintenance Assessment District is one of more than 60 districts of its kind across the city. The districts are a tool for communities to raise money through property assessments to perform services on top of the baseline services the city provides to every neighborhood — in some cases services they feel the city isn’t providing. That’s been the case in the Central Commercial District, some said.
“This community has always been overlooked. It’s forgotten, it’s a stepchild of the city,” Zuniga said.
This Southeastern San Diego district has a nearly $250,000 annual budget with more than 400 parcels assessed, or levied, between several hundred and several thousand dollars a pop.
Those opposed to disestablishment say the district is an important resource for the community to make decisions about what they want in their neighborhood. Others take issue with the district’s new manager — the city, which took over this summer after an owner association managed the district since its inception.
The battle for control over the district, its money and operations tugs at long-held frustrations within the community about the city’s role in creating what they said is an influx of homeless people who some blame for additional trash in the area.
Framed another way, the two-decade old maintenance assessment district is at the heart of the community’s struggle to control its own future.
“It’s a struggle for the community to have a voice in its future, its present state and its future,” said John Mireles, a property owner in the district.
A Divide in the District
The Central Commercial Maintenance Assessment District was run by an owner association for the 20 years since it began. But after the city took over as manager of the district in July, some board members are ready to disband the district altogether.
A handful of board members of the Central Commercial District Revitalization Corporation, the nonprofit owner association formed to run the district, have said they would rather save the money they pay to fund the district than see the district continue under the city’s management.
The district — which includes residential and commercial properties from Imperial Avenue from Interstate 5 to 32nd Street, Commercial Street from Interstate 5 to 28th Street and National Avenue from 28th Street to 32nd Street and some side streets between Imperial Avenue and Commercial Street — imposes a fee on property owners within its boundaries to pay for maintenance services. The fee, or special assessment, is based on how much each property will benefit from the services.
The district includes more than 400 parcels and had a budget of nearly a quarter million in the 2022 fiscal year. With that money, the district provides street and gutter sweeping, tree planting and trimming, trash and litter abatement and graffiti removal.
In the owner association’s most recently available tax filing, the board paid its executive director, Don Shuckett, $18,000 for 10 hours of work per week in 2018. Almost $120,000 went toward paying the maintenance staff that year, which includes the executive director, a supervisor and three workers who worked full time and received health insurance, according to one board member.
None of the board members reported compensation that year.
In letters to the city over the years, some property owners in the district alleged the owners association was mismanaging the district and asked the city not to renew their contract. That prompted the city’s Economic Development Department to review its contract with the owners association.
During that review, the city found compliance issues with the board that included failures to meet as often as required, post meeting notices and minutes online and respond to formal complaints. The city also found their administrative costs were higher than what their contract allowed.
The city sent a letter to the owners association in the beginning of June, a month before their contract was up for renewal. By the end of the month, the city decided to take over as manager of the district instead of renewing with the owners association.
Jerry McCormick, a city spokesperson, said that when compliance issues come up, the city “prioritizes working with contractors to improve compliance when willingness is demonstrated by the contractors.”
But in this case, he added, “The [Central Commercial District Revitalization Corporation] did not demonstrate a willingness to improve compliance or provide a formal response to the letter dated June 2, 2021.”
Some board members who have owned property in the area for decades, felt wronged by the city’s decision.
“To me, it’s a slap in the face,” Zuniga, who said she’s been on the board since the start of the district, said.
Zuniga has been a prominent community activist in the area with more than 30 years of volunteer work. She said she helped open a police station in the neighborhood, fundraise for the Logan Heights library and organize a neighborhood watch group.
“We were there for 20 years. We kept the neighborhood clean. You look at it now and it’s not clean. There’s trash all over the place. There’s weeds. It’s just sad,” Zuniga said.
Zuniga said maintenance services have declined since the city took over. The city is now managing the district’s budget and uses a contractor to perform the district services.
The Central Commercial Maintenance Assessment District is now one of two districts where the city’s Economic Development Department has taken over as manager. The other seven under the department are run by owners associations. There are another 55 districts under the city’s Parks and Recreation department.
Over the years, the board said it did a decent job cleaning up in the neighborhood but acknowledged challenges in recent years that made the mission more difficult.
Some are still frustrated with the city’s decision in 2018 to place a storage center for homeless people on Commercial Street in Sherman Heights.
At the hearing in 2018 to approve the project, David Alvarez, then-city council member representing the area, was the sole vote against the storage center, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
He said the decision continued a history of neglect and showed a lack of respect for the largely Latino neighborhood.
Zuniga expressed a similar sentiment.
“The city has always dealt with us in a horrible way. They have dumped everything that they don’t want down there,” Zuniga said. “Would you have that in La Jolla?”
Some property owners said the homeless population in the community defecate in the alleys near their property and create sanitation issues. The district does not cover alleys in its boundaries, but Zuniga said the homeless population brings more trash into the area, too, which the district is supposed to address.
That situation has left those property owners frustrated with the city.
“I don’t think in most cities people pay additional taxes to have trash picked up,” said Kurt Krasne, another board member. “I think the city needs to address the homeless population in our area.”
Krasne also believes the district was run more efficiently under the board. He thinks the city will have to raise the assessment in order to provide the same level of services that the board provided, and he’s not willing to add more of his money to the pot.
Raising the special assessment would require a majority vote from property owners in a process similar to forming maintenance assessment districts, according to Tim Graham, a city spokesperson.
Zuniga, Krasne and another board member, Jess Haro, said they are ready to disband the district. They believe they have enough support in the district to do so.
“All I want personally, I just want my assessment back. Give me back my assessment because I’m going to take care of my own property. That’s a lot of money,” Haro said.
Forming a maintenance assessment district requires a favorable vote from property owners who would pay a majority of the special assessment collected by the district.
In order to dissolve the district, property owners who own at least 30% of the parcels or pay at least 30% of the total special assessments collected by the district would have to sign a formal petition and present it to the city.
The San Diego City Council could also initiate the process at its sole discretion, according to Leslie Wolf Branscomb, a senior public information officer for the San Diego City Attorney’s Office.
The city council would then hold a public hearing on the issue and could adopt a resolution to disband the district, Branscomb said.
Few maintenance assessment districts in the city have been dissolved. If the Central Commercial district dissolves, it could be the first time in 20 years, according to Graham.
Vivian Moreno, the city councilmember who represents the neighborhoods in the maintenance assessment district, said she would like to see the district continue.
However, she said, all maintenance assessment districts “should abide by City rules including the proper use of these funds and how the organization operates.”
James Justus, who’s been on the owners association board since the district started, wants to see it continue. He said the services that the city provides through its contractor, Urban Corps of San Diego County, have been about the same as the services under the board.
Urban Corps helps underserved young adults finish high school while doing paid job training like environmental projects and community improvement services. Their clientele includes young parents, adults without high school diplomas, refugees and homeless students.
Justus said the city’s services “have been getting better (but) could be a lot better.”
“I think the Urban Corps can do a good job if we just kind of spell out what we’d like to have done,” Justus said.
‘We’re Not Going Anywhere’
People on both sides of the battle over the district believe losing the it could have a major impact on the community. But those who want the district to continue believe there is good reason to keep it around beyond the maintenance in public areas like streets and sidewalks that the district provides.
John Mireles lives above an art studio and gallery that he owns in the district. He also has tenants in that building and another rental home he owns.
For him, the district is an important avenue for the community to communicate its goals to the city and control its own growth.
“By giving a community a voice, then we can empower people here so that we can hopefully maintain the culture here and maintain what we’ve got,” Mireles said.
But Mireles said the stakes are different for those who live and do business in the district and those who own property but live and work outside of the district. In some cases, property owners pay the assessments for the maintenance services, but the renters are the ones dealing with day-to-day challenges in the neighborhood like trash.
Zuniga and Haro, who want to disband the district, are longtime property owners in the area who lease to tenants but do not live in the area. Krasne owns a leather manufacturing warehouse on Commercial Street.
On average, more than three-quarters of homes in the area are rented; less than a quarter are housed by owners, according to U.S. Census data from 2019.
Mireles was part of a group of vocal property owners who thought the owners association was mismanaging the district. The allegations that he and others brought forward are in part what led to the city taking over.
He admits that the district has “a lot of work to do” to engage the community, especially the Spanish speaking residents in the area who he said mostly don’t know about the district.
Several property owners active in the district acknowledge a need to reach more people. In a district of more than 400 parcels, only a handful of people actively participate in district activities.
Those involved believe the district can do more than pick up trash in the neighborhood.
Raymond Lawson lives in a house he bought in the district three years ago. He wants to see a new owner association take over the district and expand its scope.
“I’d like to see some street signage and stuff like that. First and foremost, art, trees, lighting. Let’s start there,” Lawson said.
“Once you’re able to do those things and get some of that stuff done, when that beautification is done, you’re going to see things change and there’ll be more involvement,” Lawson said.
In late November, the city held a walk-about for community members in the district to point out areas in the streets and sidewalk that needed more maintenance.
About a half dozen property owners showed up and were joined by city staff, a council representative from Moreno’s office and a representative from the Logan Heights Community Development Corporation, a local nonprofit providing educational, financial and health resources for residents and businesses.
During the two-hour walk, community members stopped to point out trash bags that sat next to an overflowing trash can and passed leaves from deciduous trees piled on the walkway.
Octavio Gonzalez was one of the community members who attended.
Gonzalez grew up in Sherman Heights and said he’s seen the neighborhood change significantly over the years. He remembers rampant violence and drug abuse as a kid in the neighborhood. Now, he’s moved back to the area to raise his family.
“It was an opportunity for growth and to be involved in a community that I grew up with that was extremely terrifying at the time that I was growing up in it. I could see the future and what was happening to this community,” Gonzalez said.
Despite efforts from some to dissolve the district, Gonzalez said the group of supporters has not been discouraged.
“They can do what they want to do, but they’re not going to dissolve the passion and the drive that we have. And that’s the most important. If there’s grit and passion, it cannot slow that down,” Gonzalez said. “We’re not going anywhere.”