Guest commentary: Redistricting process is ignoring the needs of UC San Diego students

UC San Diego students walk on the campus in La Jolla in September.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Students are the future of San Diego. So why does redistricting overlook them?

As a student myself, I appreciate the lessons that the city of San Diego’s current City Council redistricting process has taught me. I’ve heard an incredible range of perspectives, but the most important takeaway for me is that underrepresented communities are still excluded from decision-making. Especially students.

University City east of Interstate 5 would move to neighboring District 6.

I have seen how my UC San Diego peers are ignored and viewed condescendingly by community leaders and the city’s Redistricting Commission itself. Students at UC San Diego have made it clear for months that they want to leave City Council District 1, where politics are run by affluent single-family homeowners in La Jolla. With a unified voice, we have asked to join our neighbors to the east in District 6 to create a student and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) empowerment district.

It is no secret that homeowners from La Jolla dominate council District 1 — our shared representatives always hail from and answer to these residents. Despite La Jolla comprising only 25 percent of voters in District 1, a La Jolla resident has been elected to the City Council for that seat for decades. This comes at the expense of tens of thousands of UC San Diego students, whose needs only become more desperate as years of inaction are building a crisis.

For the past year, La Jollans attempted to stall the construction of 2,000 new student housing units. When that didn’t work, they filed a lawsuit to halt the construction. La Jolla leaders spared no tool in their toolbox to block housing density.

Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, low housing stock created a crisis so widespread that, no matter who you asked, UC San Diego students were either personally affected or knew someone who was struggling to find a place to live. Rent increased, applications for apartment units soared into the triple digits, and stress was at an all-time high. For many, financial security was uncertain or severely jeopardized. Some students resorted to living in their cars while others crashed on sofas or sought emergency housing with UC San Diego’s The Hub Basic Needs Center.

Yet our voices have been drowned out at Redistricting Commission hearings. After dozens of students spoke out in special hearings for Districts 1 and 6, organized political insiders in La Jolla, including former council President Sherri Lightner, responded to our concerns by rallying to preserve the status quo. Apparently, students speaking up is more alarming to District 1 leaders than the thought of students living in cars or hallways on campus.

Size isn’t everything in the city of San Diego’s current City Council redistricting effort.

To date, the majority of commissioners have demonstrated far more concern for the feelings of these La Jollans than any other community.

This group formed to “preserve” District 1 and called on decades of history to justify its goals. Yet that same history lends itself to discriminatory and racist housing practices. These policies remained in effect as recently as the 1960s and speak to La Jolla’s present composition of nearly 80 percent White residents. This group also claims La Jolla to be UC San Diego’s “birthplace,” even though early on, then-University of California President Clark Kerr suggested renaming UC San Diego from UC La Jolla “partly because of the association of La Jolla’s name with attitudes antagonistic to minority racial and religious groups, and, too, because the city of San Diego was the donor of the land for the campus.”

This history led directly to the decades of hostility toward students that produced the current crisis.

Unfortunately, the Redistricting Commission has demonstrated a clear and unmistakable belief in the superiority of coastal single-family communities. Maps proposed by the chairman have been specifically designed to maintain the status quo at the expense of historically underrepresented communities, ignoring the fact that the current maps have failed many in San Diego.

At a recent redistricting hearing, Commissioner Fred Kosmo said: “I’m impressed with the college students and their enthusiasm, but a lot of people who have families and jobs — they came out, too. ... You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.”

This tone-deaf statement implies that students are not employed or do not have families to support, and that affordable housing is not a basic need.

Students have unified behind a map backed by a coalition of community organizations: the San Diego Communities Collaboration Map. With broad support from across the city, students stand with diverse and historically underrepresented communities — such as the AAPI community and businesses in District 6, along with efforts to reunify Rancho Peñasquitos and Clairemont, and more — who demand that the commission hear our voices and act.

Aidan Lin is a student majoring in political science at UC San Diego and associate vice president of local affairs for the Associated Students of UCSD. He lives in University City. This commentary was originally published by The San Diego Union-Tribune.