Note: this is an extended version of an op-ed that first appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune on Sept. 17, 2020
San Diego's seventy miles of coastline are a place of escape for residents and tourists, but they also represent a long and entrenched history of inequality.
Since the 1930s, discriminatory housing practices have shaped the demographic makeup and wealth patterns of San Diego’s neighborhoods, resulting in what remains a majority-white demographic along the coast. As a result, local communities of color often lack representation in coastal planning conversations around protections for public beach access, public infrastructure, and private homes in the face of sea level rise. Oftentimes, planning decisions tend to protect the private property interests of the coastal homeowner rather than the interests of the beachgoing public. Such biased planning perpetuates coastal access inequity while threatening the future health of our beaches.
A history of discrimination: redlining
The displacement and segregation of communities of color along the San Diego coastline is a centuries-old practice. dating back to the Spanish occupation of Kumeyaay territory in the 1700s. Since then, access to land within San Diego, particularly along the coast, has been shaped by an institutionalized housing policy commonly referred to as ‘redlining’.
In the 1930s, Congress created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included a goal to increase homeownership by making homes more affordable. The HOLC created maps to assess the risk of mortgage lending based upon a variety of factors, including a problematic practice which designated primarily nonwhite neighborhoods with a red “hazardous” line.
The hazardous designation had three major effects:
- It disproportionately denied communities of color from access to guaranteed mortgages
- It incentivized businesses to leave nonwhite communities
- It impacted economic opportunities and quality of life for minorities
As a result, homeownership opportunities for whites rapidly expanded in more desirable locations, establishing a foundation for white families to develop and inherit personal wealth. Meanwhile, minorities living in “hazardous” areas were impeded from social mobility as it was much harder for them to build up personal wealth. Unfortunately, this legacy remains and persists today.
In San Diego, many formerly ‘redlined’ communities continue to experience the negative consequences of this policy, including a lack of coastal access. Conversely, historically white coastal neighborhoods now feature some of the most expensive real estate in the county. And since coastal communities are afforded great liberties in determining their own local planning, redlining largely contributed to an environment where present-day people of color are not included in planning conversations, because their predecessors were denied the opportunity to live in coastal communities.
A history of discrimination: racially restrictive deed covenants and Proposition 13
Discriminatory housing practices also existed in San Diego through racially restrictive deed covenants. These covenants often prevented the sale, rental, or transfer of property based upon race. An existing deed from present-day Solana Beach reads:
“Said property shall never be sold, conveyed, transferred, devised, leased to or inherited by, or be otherwise acquired by and become the property of any persons other than of the white or Caucasian race.”
While these deed restrictions are no longer legally enforceable thanks to the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, they continue to exist as a reminder of a history not so long ago.
Even today, inequality is perpetuated by legislation such as Proposition 13, which rewards the legacy of homeownership by disincentivizing homeowners from selling their properties. While Proposition 13 may have attempted to make it more affordable for future families to live in inherited properties, a negative consequence is that Proposition 13 largely aids benefactors of redlining.
Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, and it allows an unlimited number of descendants to inherit real estate with the perk of paying property taxes based upon property values established in 1976. Not only does Proposition 13 contribute to our current housing crisis by reducing the supply of real estate on the market, but it also perpetuates wealth inequality by effectively withholding homeownership opportunities for people who have been historically denied access. In fact, Justice John Paul Stevens of the California Supreme Court once referred to Proposition 13’s inheritance benefit as one of the most unfair provisions in California’s system.
The spirit of localism
In present-day San Diego, inequity is also expressed within our coastal communities through a phenomenon known as localism. While pervasive within local surf culture (“locals only”), localism has also made its way into coastal planning conversations, such as city council meetings. Frequent rallying cries include: “My family has lived here for 60 years” and “I’m a 6th generation San Diegan.”
The spirit of localism often informs the opinions of coastal homeowners, and most frequently emerges in planning discussions related to sea level rise. When the general public reinforces the need for proactive city planning that protects public beaches and beach access over private beachfront homes, local residents quickly and passionately respond with statements that don’t acknowledge the role that racially discriminatory housing practices played in their family's long coastal history.
In San Diego’s surf spots and coastal communities, localism reinforces racial segregation and classism, especially when the local community is defined by its predominately white, middle to upper class status. For a great read on surfing and localism in San Diego, see Surfer’s recent article Whose Coast Are You Surfing In San Diego?
This framing is critical for understanding how San Diego’s coastal communities evolved as a white-majority and how they continue to reinforce a contemporary racial and class divide.
Environmental threats and coastal planning
Coastal access inequity is particularly relevant today as coastal communities plan for environmental threats like sea level rise. In cities such as Del Mar, public infrastructure and many private homes have been developed within what is now a flood zone. As sea levels rise, coastal cities must begin planning for the protection of public and private assets, as directed by the California Coastal Commission.
Though the California Coastal Act of 1976 prioritizes the preservation of public access to the coast, many homeowners are lobbying their local governments to protect their private real estate assets in the face of rising seas. More often than not, these private property protections come at the expense of public beaches. Coastal homeowners, armed with privately-funded lawyers and geology reports, frequently submit redevelopment plans to construct private seawalls or other forms of coastal armoring.
While coastal armoring is intended to protect private homes, the reality is that armoring ultimately drowns public beaches. Our shoreline is a dynamic environment that requires the freedom to naturally advance and recede. When seawalls are installed along our beaches or bluffs, the backs of our beaches are ‘set,’ leaving the ocean with nowhere to go and making beach loss inevitable.
If coastal communities continue to prioritize private protections first, the public stands to lose our beaches. According to the US Geological Survey, two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches could be underwater by the end of the century. Poor coastal planning is accelerating this loss.
But sea level rise isn’t the only threat to the future of our beaches. Decades of human intervention has deprived our beaches of their most valuable resource: sand. Our beaches rely on organic sand replenishment from a variety of sources:
- Rivers, which are now dammed
- Crumbling sandstone bluffs, which are now armored with seawalls or riprap
- The organic distribution of sand via currents, which are now interrupted by jetties.
If we continue to allow disruptive overdevelopment along our delicate coastline, we all potentially face a future without beaches.
Where do we go from here?
San Diego’s history of racial discrimination and segregation established a foundation of inequality that persists today. As the California Coastal Commission requires cities to update their Local Coastal Programs, cities must consider San Diego’s historical inequities when making land-use decisions. Local governments must not cater to the interests of a privileged few. Instead, governments must commit to providing equitable beach access for all.
In San Diego, beaches are our greatest public resource — so important and cherished that California voters designated beaches as protected resources under the Coastal Act. As we face changes brought about by nature and time, we must be thoughtful in planning how we will protect beaches for everyone. Only then can San Diego begin to rectify its history of injustice.
How to get involved
Here are a few ways to get involved in promoting equitable coastal access while protecting the future of our beaches:
- Educate yourself. Learn about San Diego’s history of redlining and segregation. Study the environmental threats to our local beaches and understand the rights given to us within the Coastal Act.
- Raise your voice.
- Write letters and send emails to your local city council members, reiterating the importance of public beach access.
- Submit e-comments or dial into city council meetings to remind elected officials that they must protect the public’s right to beach access.
- Organize. Talk to your friends and neighbors about these issues. We need as many voices as possible standing up for the public’s legal protections.
- Get involved. Attend one of Surfrider San Diego’s Beach Preservation Committee meetings to learn more about what we’re doing to fight for our beaches.