San Diego OKs rules for shifting infrastructure funding from wealthy areas to low-income neighborhoods

An unpaved dirt road lined with parked cars and pickup trucks.
This unpaved road in southeastern San Diego is often used as an example of unequal distribution of infrastructure across the city.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The City Council unanimously approved a complex scoring system and commitment to gather more feedback on projects from underserved areas


San Diego’s efforts to bring more fire stations, parks, libraries and new roads to neglected neighborhoods in the southern part of the city took a step forward Monday, Dec. 12, when the City Council approved a new infrastructure funding policy.

The policy includes a new scoring system that gives higher priority to neighborhoods that have been historically underserved, where incomes are low and where residents have relatively low access to economic opportunities.

The changes may mean higher-income areas will wait longer for infrastructure projects, but factors like public safety, state mandates and protecting the environment will still be considered in deciding which projects get built.

Those factors will be weighed against social equity and boosting opportunities in low-income areas, which are mostly south of state Route 94. The new policy also gives priority to neighborhoods experiencing the most growth.

The City Council previously committed to shifting some infrastructure spending away from wealthier neighborhoods toward low-income areas, but the specific method for making such a change hadn’t been proposed until now.

“The residents of some parts of our city never got their fair share, and it’s time that they get it,” Councilmember Stephen Whitburn said.

The policy also gives priority to neighborhoods considered the least prepared for climate change, mostly low-income areas where there are fewer trees and where air conditioning is less common.

New policy pools developer fees citywide instead of restricting them to specific neighborhoods

“This policy will facilitate decisions that are more in line with our priorities as a council — taking aggressive action on climate and making up for a long history of disinvestment in some communities,” Councilmember Raul Campillo said.

The new policy is a historic shift for San Diego, said Kim Desmond, who leads the city’s Office of Race and Equity.

“You are not doing equity work if you are not addressing a clear disparity,” said Desmond, contending the new policy will make the city more structurally committed to fairness.

The new policy also aims to help low-income areas become a bigger part of how decisions about infrastructure projects get made at City Hall.

Following an earlier commitment to shifting some infrastructure spending toward low-income areas, the city’s new scoring system prioritizes areas with weak economic opportunity.

In addition to the scoring system, the new policy requires officials to conduct a citywide public outreach campaign every two years with what officials are calling “focused engagement” in low-income areas that have been neglected and underserved.

City planning director Heidi Vonblum said that when studying decades of disparities regarding where infrastructure has been built in the city, officials discovered that residents from different neighborhoods haven’t participated equally in the decision-making process.

“All residents deserve to see the benefits of critical infrastructure,” she said.

The new process will give a larger role to nonprofits and social service agencies because city officials say low-income residents often trust such community-based organizations more than they trust the city.

The new scoring system is expected to have a significant impact because the council approved a new policy in August — Build Better San Diego — that allows fees collected from developers to be funneled into low-income areas for infrastructure.

The plaintiffs argue that allowing developer money to be spent in neighborhoods far from the site of the development is unconstitutional and violates state laws.

It is illegal to spend developer fees that way if they were collected before the new policy. Those previously collected fees, which total more than $220 million citywide, must be spent in the neighborhoods where they were collected.

But all developer fees moving forward will be placed in the new citywide pot of money.

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