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Q&A: District 6 Councilmember Kent Lee on his first week in office

SAN DIEGO DEMS
Matthew Bowler
/
KPBS
San Diego City Councilmember Kent Lee speaks at a San Diego County Democratic Party election event in downtown San Diego, Nov. 8, 2022.

San Diego’s City Councilmembers were sworn in on Monday. The nine-member council has one new member — Kent Lee. Lee replaces outgoing councilmember Chris Cate who was the last remaining Republic member of the nonpartisan council and was termed out after serving eight years representing District 6.

The city’s 6th district includes Mira Mesa, Kearny Mesa, Sorrento Valley, most of University City and portions of Scripps Ranch.

Lee joined Midday Edition on Wednesday with more on his hopes for his first term in office. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

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What do you see as the biggest issues specifically facing District 6 going into your term?

Lee: We've had a chance to talk about this over the last two years with a lot of our residents door to door, and I think what you'll find is that a lot of the biggest issues within District 6 are no different than what we're facing as a region. I think without a question at the moment, a lot of residents are concerned about the increasing homelessness that we see across our region, but really also how that ties into the simple fact that housing is simply unaffordable.

Right now in San Diego, costs have gone up for everything, but nothing has been more markedly concerning, I think, for a lot of residents than the cost of housing. Especially for those who are renting or looking to live and stay in San Diego. That is continually seeming to be a challenge given that rising cost. I think some of the other challenges that we're facing are similar across the region. We are growing communities, and we know that we need to really consider how we deliver infrastructure. A lot of our streets are in dire need repair. That also goes the same to say for a lot of city facilities, whether it's parks or libraries. A lot of our Asian communities within District 6, that is the focus is on trying to figure out how we deliver the infrastructure of the transit that's needed to make our communities livable.

You're a first generation Asian American in the city's most populated AAPI district. What does it mean to you to be a voice for the community, particularly as San Diego becomes more diverse?

Lee: I'm really honored to be able to represent this district, and certainly there's no doubt that with it being about 41% Asian American Pacific Islander, that is sort of a significant component of the district. But I'm also here to represent the entire community, and I think where those really come together is that there are a lot of priorities that end up overlapping. And I think this is as much about providing a voice for those who may not often have that voice, especially at city hall, and ensuring that we have an opportunity to shine a light on issues and causes that may not always be heard.

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It's not lost on me that there have been very few Asian American Pacific Islander council members that have served in our city. I had the honor of being sworn in by former councilmember Tom Hom, who actually first served in 1963. I think this is an opportunity to really think about how we highlight and uplift those voices, but how we ultimately serve the community as a whole in ensuring that we actually deliver on the promises that we make.

You have a lot of nonprofit experience under your belt. How do you feel this will help you during your time on the council?

Lee: I've always been a believer that this is really about service to our community and to our residents, and I think my experience within the nonprofit community has really resembled one of service, and I think that's what our focus is on. I think a lot of people think of nonprofit organizations just in terms of delivering good to a community, but behind the scenes, really, it's in many ways just like running a business, except there are some really significant challenges. I mean, we often have really broad missions that we want to deliver in terms of serving the community, but very limited resources in which we have to do that within.

I think that's really no different than the city of San Diego, perhaps at a very larger scale in that we really want to ensure that we actually deliver the maximum amount of impact that we have for our residents with the very limited and financial resources that we have available, and I think understanding how we are going to deliver on those priorities, ensuring that we meet those who have the greatest needs, and that we end up serving all of our residents as a whole. That balance is something that I think is very similar to those of us who have had an opportunity to serve throughout the nonprofit community. And that's that kind of experience that I would hope to continue to bring and that voice that I would hope to lend to our city council.

You're a homeowner at a time where that goal seems out of reach for so many San Diego. What do you think needs to be done to improve the city's housing crisis?

Lee: My wife and I look at the home that we're in, and we recognize that even if you bought a home in just the last couple of years — I've heard from many residents and then ourselves included — we feel like we couldn't afford the house that we're in today. And if that's the case, I mean, what's it like for those who have been renting in San Diego trying to save up? Now between the cost of housing and the rising interest rates to see that sort of fall out of line, and I think what that reminds us is that it's not just saying that we need more housing, but really specifically driving down to how do we deliver the housing that's needed for San Diego as a whole.

A lot of that comes down to middle income housing. When we look at folks who are making the median income within our region and we think of the cost of housing and the median cost of a home that's available, that disparity is really significant. And I think that disparity and the difference in that ratio is really what makes San Diego now the most expensive place to live in the country. So if we really want to deliver on actually having housing that's more affordable, what's going to be key is thinking about how we deliver on middle income housing that's going to match the needs of working families throughout the city.

Homelessness is also a key issue facing the region. Any thoughts on what can be done there?

Lee: I've been heartened to see a lot more collaboration coming, especially with the city and the county and other agencies as a region. But it's also frustrating to see that is only beginning to really take shape. And we know the crisis is at an all-time high. And what I am really most grateful for is looking at how we can bring together all of the resources, all the strategies that we have, and really work together as a region to solve the issue, because it doesn't just shift from one municipality to another. It's important that we're all working together to address the challenges that we're facing.

I know we're not necessarily going to solve all of it overnight, but we certainly have pockets of homelessness that we really should be focused on and be able to deliver on. I think a lot about the fact that we have a lot of families with young children who are facing homelessness, folks who are seniors, those who have served in our military, and others that we should be finding ways to deliver resources that would actually address the challenges, and I think there's, without a doubt, a lot of work to do.