Twenty-five years ago, Rafael Aguilar and his wife Silvia Carrillo began to make a life for themselves in Sherman Heights, which had become home to many recent Mexican immigrants.
Although life in Sherman Heights, like it was for many unskilled immigrants from Mexico, was by no means easy for Carrillo and Aguilar, somehow they made it through, working minimum wage jobs to make ends meet, raising a family of four in a one-bedroom apartment.
That formula worked for two and a half decades-long enough for Rafael, 43, a busser at a local restaurant, and Silvia, 43, a local laundromat employee, to raise their children and develop an attachment to Sherman Heights, where they believed they would spend the rest of their lives.
Or so they thought.
Last month Carrillo and Aguilar were forced to pack their belongings and move from their home, unable to pay the $675 per month rent, which was up from $90 in 1978 and $425 in 2000.
The couple's story is not unlike many other minimum-wage residents in San Diego. Word has it skyrocketing rents are forcing hundreds of longtime Chicano residents out of Sherman Heights. Their rents, in some cases, have increased more than 100 percent during the past two years, activists say.
“We're talking about families on an income of $14,000 yearly,” said Genoveva Aguilar, the eldest of Aguilar and Carrillo's four children. “What's going to happen to the really poor people? They have no resources.”
Aguilar, 23, a member of Developing Unity through Resident Organizing (DURO), was able to find temporary living arrangements for her parents. Many residents, however, are not as lucky, and the problem is getting serious for low-wage Chicano families in San Diego, forcing some into homelessness.
“It's not only in Sherman Heights. These families are not rare,” said Yolanda Burruel, co-chair of the San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP), who added that longtime residents in South Crest and Logan Heights are also being forced out of their homes.
“Their salaries are low,” Burruel said, “and in many cases there are families that are doubling up, barely able to have a roof over their head.”
Since 1996, according to statistics from the San Diego Association of Governments, rental rates in the San Diego region overall have increased by 47 percent.
The dynamic rise in rents, Aguilar said, has resulted in an influx of middle-class residents into communities like Sherman Heights, where rents are typically lower than the rest of the county. The expected real estate boom from the new downtown ballpark also fits into the equation.
Some landlords, Aguilar said, seem to be cashing in thanks to the wave of middle-class residents moving into Sherman Heights-they're hiking up the rents and serving eviction notices to low-income residents who have been there for decades.
Aguilar also alleges that some residents are not even given the mandatory 30-days to pack-up and leave.
“In the 1980s, no one wanted to live in Sherman Heights,” said Aguilar. “Now that the ball park is coming, they want to move out all of these people. The owners are raising the rents because they know we can't afford it.”
In apartments and homes where Chicano families had lived for decades, now college students and individuals with middle-class incomes have moved in, leaving many Chicano families with few places to go.
“That's what gentrification is all about,” said Vernon Brinkley, chairman of the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, “the more affluent taking over from the less affluent and moving them out. [The owners] see what is going on, and they see that they are able to raise the rent.”
And while the San Diego City Council have made baby steps toward dealing with the housing situation, Aguilar fears that minimum wage workers, such as her parents, will not benefit from them. On Aug. 6, the City Council voted 7-2 to adopt an “inclusionary housing” ordinance, which will compel builders to set aside 10 percent of new homes for low- or moderate-income households-or pay a fee. Rental units would have to be affordable to households earning no more than $39,050 a year for a family of four. For-sale homes would have to be priced for individuals earning up to $60,100 for a four-person household.
While some middle class individuals may be able to take advantage of such changes, inclusionary housing, says Aguilar, is a double fantasy for minimum wage workers. Aguilar says its clear that “the dishwashers and the bus boys of this city are not important.”
Neil Arthur, chairman of the San Diego Housing Commission, said that while there's talk at the City Council level about making it easier for people in the lower-middle economic levels to find affordable housing, in the meantime, more and more poor families will be forced out of their homes.
“The train has left the track and now we are trying to catch the train,” Arthur said. “If we can build a ballpark and a convention center in this city, we can help the working poor-the problem is we just don't want to right now.”
“In the long run, maybe 10 to 20 years from now, maybe inclusionary housing will help [the working poor],” added Brinkley. “But right now there are others [in the middle class] who still can't afford a home, and that's who inclusionary housing will help. I don't see anything in the next two years that is going to change. Right now the city is focused on the ballpark and the East Village.”
Aguilar also added that as increasing numbers of longtime residents are forced to move out of Sherman Heights, the city will eventually loose a wellspring of Chicano history and culture.
She recalls how members of the community, like her parents, spent years pushing for a community center with programs for their children, and how they united to make streets safer from drug dealers and gang members. She worries that the small yet important elements in her barrio-the street venders who sell raspados and tortillas and the elders with stories about the neighborhood-will be gone within the span of a few years.
“It used to be really bad here, but our parents stood up for this community when we were not welcome in La Jolla or anyplace else,” said Aguilar. “We were the ones who were always in the meetings. We were the ones who people told, ‘You live in a ghetto,' and we stood up, saying, ‘Our barrio is not a ghetto.' This is more than a neighborhood. This is our culture.”