San Diego Council President Georgette Gómez on 'Pandemic Through the Lens of Equity and Inclusion'
Prior to Governor Newsom’s announcement of state assistance for California’s immigrant and undocumented workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, TPR spoke with San Diego City Council President, Georgette Gomez, on the critical value of providing accessible and factual information and resources to the city’s diverse constituents during this unprecedented public health crisis. President Gomez stresses how the pandemic is magnifying systemic inequalities—including income, language, and digital barriers—and the need for additional federal support to serve the essential frontline workers and communities throughout San Diego as city revenues run dry.
Council President Gómez, share the representational & operational challenges presented by COVID-19 that demand your attention as a Councilmember? And, as Council President, the city and metropolitan issues that you have prioritized.
This pandemic has most definitely become the big focus of our entire lives; it’s literally the center of what we do every single day thus far. That translates to the work that I do as the council president in a couple of ways.
As a council representative for District 9, I’m making sure my constituents are receiving the information that’s flowing from all levels of government, because City Heights—one of the communities I represent—has families that are not hooked up to the internet nor do they have computers. Yet, the world right now seems to be shaping around the necessity of having devices. We are reaching out to our constituents via phone to ensure that people are connected to the resources that are available.
We're also connecting with other entities that have stepped up to do translation work for us. As we're creating or aggregating important information that needs to be communicated, we are trying to turn that around in different languages—Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese— to make sure that the whole community is being informed. Outside of delivering information and checking up on constituents, we want to ensure that they're getting access to food and—if they have a computer—connecting them to providers that are making internet service available either free or at-cost.
That takes me into City Hall. When all of the different stay-at-home orders were coming very quickly, we knew that we would eventually not be in City Hall. So, we created a system to be able to still meet, review, or adopt items to continue business for the city moving forward and to ensure that the public is participating in some way, so we don’t leave the community out of the decision making. That capability is still limited—it’s a hybrid between some staff and councilmembers calling in while three other council members are present at the hall. The community sends in written comments that are read during the meeting. [After this interview was conducted, the San Diego City Clerk instituted a new system that allows members of the public to call in and speak directly during Council and committee meetings.]
COVID-19 required us to make certain decisions, like closing restaurants and certain businesses. Because of the economic impact this has on people working in these industries, we crafted a proposal right away that laid out 14 different measures. The main ones related to implementing a moratorium on evictions—at least for the period that we have this emergency in place—to protect both residential renters and commercial tenants. That's been adopted already; as soon as we introduced the idea, we made it into a policy.
The premise was to ensure that folks didn't have another worry. Without their regular paycheck, and it was already two weeks before the end of March, people were going to start trying to pay bills. It was a response to create less anxiety, and help government respond without more people living in the streets; we were trying to address both areas.
Elaborate on the income inequality and inclusion issues that have been brought to the foreground by the pandemic; and, how the City of San Diego should address these challenges today.
I've always been an advocate—and now a government decision maker—engaging in policymaking through a lens of equality and inclusion. It’s more important now than ever before to really create a better system that treats people equally. By leaving a lot of people behind, we now have to create emergency policies to address those inequalities. But if, from the beginning, we had addressed inclusion and equality, I would have less pressure to create an eviction policy targeting low-income communities or renters in the middle of a crisis.
We knew that they were going to be susceptible, but there’s a domino effect of what could happen if we didn't introduce those policies immediately. If people lose their homes, that would have led to more people in the streets. But if we're not protecting landlords that are investing in the properties, they might have to declare foreclosure, and that doesn't help anybody.
How do we create a better system that truly creates inclusion and equality? In moments like these, we see what the challenges are, and it does create a lot of pressure. We don't have the resources available immediately, and we had to really scramble. I have an amazing team that is very well connected, so we were able to use those relationships to help us achieve the communication that needed to occur.
TPR in the past has featured and published a great deal on one of the neighborhoods you represent, City Heights; specifically, the two-decade long effort by the City, Sol Price and others to revitalize that underserved community. What today are the economic stresses caused by COVID-19 that likewise need immediate attention by the City?
I try to do a round in the evenings to look at the conditions of the community—outside of City Heights, too—and it’s a bit of a ghost town. A lot of businesses have to close doors very early, because there's not a lot of traffic coming in; we are definitely seeing economic impacts. We entered this health crisis in an unbalanced way—with people already living paycheck-to-paycheck—and now that paycheck they were depending on is no longer coming.
The economic impacts are very severe and very real right now, and the federal government is providing very little support. Yes, it's about $1,200 if you qualify, and it’s better than nothing, but it’s still not enough. If you calculate the real cost of living in San Diego, we will quickly see that is not nearly enough for a family.
A big chunk of our population is living paycheck-to-paycheck because of the conditions that we have created by not pushing a bigger increase to the minimum wage. It does give an opportunity to really have an economic discussion and perhaps create better systems. I know that there have been talks about universal paychecks, and maybe for the working-class communities that's what’s needed.
The way that we have it structured right now, a lot of people are applying for unemployment, but it's not getting to them immediately, and there’s a longer wait even to apply. It's very difficult and inaccessible, so we're trying to connect community members to organizations that can help people apply, because otherwise they wouldn't be able to apply. It's just that simple. It's not an easy application to navigate through, so if they don't have support, they're out of luck.
It gives us a moment to pause and realize that the systems we currently have are not truly accessible to the people who really need it them most. We need to figure out how we make it accessible in a real way, because right now it isn't. Once we get out of this, there's a lot to be said about what we do to address the safety-net holes that are popping up right now.
What are the resources that the City of San Diego—and to a larger extent the county—is able to draw on to respond to the needs you so eloquently just articulated?
The reality is that the people helping others apply for unemployment are raising money from individuals, not government grants. The challenge is that some of the people that they're trying to help are undocumented, and—if we support nonprofits with government money to do this very critical work—there's the fear of having to report that information, and it might get misused. It feels like people are becoming targets.
I know California is super-inclusive, and we've been doing a lot of work trying to acknowledge our immigrant communities and our undocumented communities. We're seeing how important that community is to the makeup of California. But la ot of the people that are working right now—cooks, people stocking our markets, people working the land to make sure that we have our vegetables and fruits—are the undocumented.
It's interesting that although we don't have a system to truly address their needs, they're the ones that are keeping us going right now. The undocumented need support right now, and the entities that are set up to support them are working with very little resources; they're doing it because they care. We need to figure out how we can support them without so many conditions, if even that's a possibility given the environment at the federal level.
I've been very mindful of that reality and using media to express that we have a safe environment; we want all people—no matter their background—to feel comfortable getting access to the resources and the health care they need.
Let's turn to the CARES Act and to federal proposals and discussions for additional assistance for individuals, businesses, local governments. As someone who aspires to be a representative in Congress, what should Congress be doing—in addition to what it's done—to better serve the community economic needs?
We need more resources. I know they just passed their biggest emergency relief package ever, and that's great, but we don't yet know the massive impact COVID-19 will have in our community. From a local government perspective, we're starting to look at the numbers.
Most of our budget comes from taxation, and a lot of those taxes—transit, gas, sales—have decreased, if not completely at zero. For example, our TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) revenue is literally zero, and we're projecting it to be at that level for a couple of months.
This story was republished from planningreport.com.