San Diego reverses decades-old policies that kept dirt streets in low-income areas unpaved

San Diego reversed some decades-old policies that have prevented the city from paving more than 60 miles of dirt streets and alleys, which are located primarily in low-income neighborhoods.

Calling the policy change a key advance for social equity in San Diego, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allow city money to be spent upgrading dirt streets and alleys and to add those streets into the city’s road maintenance plans.

The policy change does not require any immediate spending during the budget crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it allows the council to consider such road work among the many capital improvement projects it considers each spring.

A recent analysis estimates that it would cost between $300 million and $900 million to pave and upgrade all 60 miles of dirt alleys and streets, many of which are in areas built before modern neighborhood development standards.

“Dirt roads and alleys have no place in America’s Finest City – or any neighborhood,” said Councilwoman Vivian Moreno, who has spearheaded efforts to pave them.

Moreno said Tuesday’s unanimous vote is a signal that the council is truly committed to boosting equity.

“These dirt streets are vestiges of the past, maintained by policies that are over six decades old,” she said. “This is the first step to addressing this equity issue, as the communities most greatly affected by unimproved streets are those made up of low-income residents of color.”

The policy preventing the city from upgrading dirt streets dates to 1952. The policy preventing the city from agreeing to take over long-term maintenance costs of those streets dates to 1979.

More than 70 percent of the unpaved streets are in Council Districts 8 and 4, two of the city’s most diverse and low-income districts.

District 8, which Moreno represents, includes Barrio Logan and communities near the Mexican border. District 4, represented by Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, includes much of Southeastern San Diego.

“When you have 70 percent of these streets in two districts, it brings up that issue of equity and how we have to take this funding and ensure that these streets are improved,” Montgomery Steppe said.

Residents and businesses near the roads deal with excessive dust in warm months, flooding and mudslides during winters, and crater-like potholes throughout the year.

Perhaps more importantly, community leaders say the unimproved dirt streets and alleys can damage neighborhood pride and leave first-time visitors and potential developers with negative images of the areas.

Council President Jennifer Campbell, who represents coastal District 2, noted that her neighborhoods have the third most miles of combined dirt streets and alleys.

“It’s a real problem,” she said. “When it rains, the street floods and the water rolls over the sidewalks and the handicapped access ramps.”

Councilman Stephen Whitburn, who represents central urban District 3, said that while the problem is concentrated in low-income areas, it exists nearly everywhere.

“Many of these are short and tucked away, but they are in every single neighborhood of my district except for downtown,” he said.

Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera said there is perhaps no clearer instance of San Diego’s previously unequal policies needing to be fixed.

“This is such a clear equity issue it’s almost a case study in the way we should be making decisions and making corrections of bad policy in the past,” he said.

Adjacent property owners will remain responsible for maintaining the dirt streets, not the city, until they are upgraded and incorporated into the streets network.

Before the city can do any upgrades, nearby property owners will have to remove any unapproved upgrades they have made, such as retaining walls.

The wide range of cost estimates from $300 million to $900 million is partly because the streets vary so much in underlying materials, whether underground utilities have been installed, and other factors.

Another element of the variance is based on how significantly the city will upgrade each street. The high-end estimate of $15 million per mile includes curbs, gutters and streetlights.