Walk in MEDA’s neighborhood center, Plaza Adelante, on any given Wednesday afternoon and you will see dozens of determined community members, during walk-in hours, seeking housing assistance from a trusted neighborhood organization. It is not easy securing affordable apartment rentals, and the application process can seem daunting, especially if you have a language barrier or limited access to a computer. Despite these challenges, a milestone was hit on August 28, with 10,000 below-market-rate (BMR) applications now being submitted by MEDA clients. On that Wednesday alone, 74 clients submitted 137 applications to have skin in the game of the City’s affordable-housing lotteries.
MEDA has a multi-pronged approach to the preservation and production of affordable housing: 439 units of HUD Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) public housing has been rehabbed; 557 new construction units are in the pipeline, with the Casa Adelante – 1296 Shotwell senior development slated to be complete by year’s end; and 22 Small Sites Program apartment buildings properties now under our belt, this targeted approach keeping in place residents and small businesses vulnerable to no-fault eviction. All told this is 1,183 homes in the affordable-housing pipeline.
Added to these strategies are the City of San Francisco lotteries for BMR apartment rentals.
MEDA has spent the last few years mythbusting the affordable-housing process with the Latino community in the Mission. Much of this initial outreach was done by Community Initiatives Manager Dairo Romero, who spearheaded various meetings at community-based organizations in the Mission to dispel the idea that BMR housing was not accessible to the low-income Latino community.
Romero answered questions. Explained the process point by point. Assisted community members with the application process.
As he garnered germane information from MEDA’s and the City’s own data about application submissions, Romero was able to provide evidence that even more outreach was needed in the Latino community, which at around 15 percent of the city’s population was not applying to BMR lotteries in equivalent numbers. Fear of government, affordable-housing misconceptions, in-person applications to property managers and at the time an Engligh-only online system meant language and digital literacy were systemic barriers that made maneuvering through the process problematic for many community members.
Romero’s data-driven findings and weekly visits to the Mayor’s office convinced the City to invest in fixing the systemic inequities of the system. They extended MEDA a grant to find ways to increase the number of applications from eligible Latino families. Romero’s approach was to use the funds to support a promotora program. A promotoras model enlists people from the community who have personal experience with the process and understand what is at stake for families who might struggle with the housing-application process. The goal? Equity of housing opportunity in San Francisco.
Promotoras’ reach is unique
Promotoras have an established, revered history in the Latino community, initially availing community members of healthcare information. Promotoras meet community members where they are at: that means lavanderias, cafeterías, iglesias, escuelas and the like. The housing promotoras visit 18 sites around the Mission, including many schools, community-based organizations and a health center.
Says MEDA promotora Andrea Paz of what drives her work: “Darle esperanza a las personas de tener un lugar digno donde vivir.” (“It’s about offering hope to people so they have a decent place to live.”)
The promotoras’ ability to reach, teach and share power with families around the community creates a new type of impact MEDA could never do alone: The 10,000 applications for 3,000 families would never have happened without promotoras on the scene.
To put it in perspective, over 70 percent of the total volume of MEDA applications since 2015 are attributed to the work of promotoras. Scaling out — rather than just scaling up — completely flipped the way housing services are provided. (see graphic below)
A current effort by the promotoras includes major support of the MEDA Housing Opportunities team to assist seniors in applying to Casa Adelante – 1296 Shotwell. This will be MEDA’s first affordable-housing development in the Mission to be completed, with 93 units for low-income seniors who are slated to move in in February.
Such scaling out includes community members now teaching each other about options and how to apply for affordable housing. According to our data, one-quarter of all MEDA clients do not have a computer at home. Nearly 50 percent of our extremely-low-Income clients do not have a computer at home and, at best, have a smartphone to access the internet. Those families on the wrong side of the digital-divide are exactly who the promotoras meet at their sites. That’s why promotoras teach community members how to apply on DAHLIA, the City’s housing portal, on their smartphones. It’s a way of working with what the clients have.
Technology to keep up with the promotoras
The promotoras’ impact meant exponentially more applications to track for our clients. For those lucky enough to “win” the lottery (really just a good place at the front of the line), there is a contracted five-day window when families are assessed for eligibility. If they cannot quickly provide updated income, credit and residency documentation, they will lose the apartment and the city will move on to the next person in line.
That’s where Associate Director of Data and Learning Michelle Reiss-Top came in with new tools for our database. Once-time-consuming searches for lottery numbers were replaced by formulas and quick data merges to pull winning numbers in minutes rather than days. Clients are contacted immediately and proof of eligibility is ready to go. From applications to move-in, the technology helps the promotoras and MEDA coaches focus on clients’ strengths and make sure no family misses out an opportunity for stable housing because the system was too tricky to navigate alone.
Tracking this impact would not be possible without a robust Salesforce database and the support of Exponent Case Management, the latter with a mission of “providing technology for social change.”
The policy piece
That 10,000 BMR applications submitted is impressive — and it has translated to 135 community members, like the Nieto family (photo), winning the lottery and getting the keys to their affordable apartment. In contrast, the number also showcases the dire need for the creation of more affordable housing in San Francisco, which has an inequitable income gap and some of the highest rents in the nation. The need is great; the units available are few; and the odds are challenging, at 1.35 percent, if you go by MEDA’s conversion rate.
Explains housing promotora Blanca Trujillo of the need: “I have learned more about my community and the increased need for affordable housing. For example, the collective power — under the lead of Faith in Action — whereby community members achieved the City’s Senior Operating Subsidy (S.O.S.) at MEDA’s Casa Adelante – 1296 Shotwell. I feel blessed and excited to see how we started the advocacy for the construction of Casa Adelante – 1296 Shotwell, with seniors expected to move into the new building early next year.”
It should be noted that at MEDA and other San Francisco community-based organizations, plus the City’s online DAHLIA housing portal for those who are tech savvy, around 5,000 seniors applied for the 71 units available at Casa Adelante -1296 Shotwell. This fact also illustrates the need for affordable housing.
That’s where MEDA’s Policy & Advocacy team comes in, knowing that affordable and stable housing is an integral piece of building equity through generational family wealth. The team works for or against local and statewide measures to ensure the Mission immigrant and low-income Latino community’s best interests are always front of mind with politicians. Additionally, leadership is fostered so that San Francisco Latinos are decision-makers and make their voices heard at City Hall and the capitol in Sacramento.
And that equity lens is also critical.