Community Organizing Busts Latinos'​ Myths Around Access to Stable, Affordable Housing

by Director of Community Real Estate Karoleen Feng
Contributed to by Community Engagement Manager Dairo Romero

The worldwide Women’s March the day after the inauguration showcased the power of community organizing to unify people’s voices, plus efficiently disseminate pertinent information. As we position for a future where sanctuary cities, such as San Francisco, will possibly be defunded and where the rights of our most-vulnerable residents are under threat, MEDA will continue deepening its strategy for community organizing. This is particularly vital with regard to housing stability in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Affordable-housing conversations
Housing issues are an omnipresent Mission topic of discourse around kitchen tables, on street corners, and at such meeting grounds as lavenderías and iglesias. This conversation is especially dire for low-income, working-class and immigrant Latino families, who have for decades been the majority population in what has quickly become one of the most unaffordable neighborhoods in the country due to the tech boom. Families that were already in fragile housing situations — squeezing into one-room apartments, setting up home in garages or couch-surfing — have now been forced out into cars or moved so far away that they have hours-long commutes back and forth to work in San Francisco.

MEDA knows of these issues all too well, as a neighborhood-based agency that has been investing in people’s lives in the Mission for 40+ years. As the lead agency for the Mission Promise Neighborhood, an education initiative that helps families succeed so students achieve, housing town halls were organized at our four schools, starting in March 2014. It was immediately exposed that the problems ran deeper than just housing: Parents’ stressors around housing instability translated into children’s lowered rates of educational success. It was time to act.

My response to this neighborhood housing crisis has been to break down the barriers that inhibit our families from getting into stable, quality housing. In the process, we are building community knowledge of affordable-housing possibilities, as we simultaneously advocate for more housing options. (This is in coordination with MEDA’s comprehensive strategies for preserving and producing affordable housing.)

The community believed there was a paucity of affordable-housing options and, while that may have been true a few years ago, we have been working collaboratively with our allies to dispel this myth.

Affordable housing in the pipeline
With market-rate housing on the rise (literally) in San Francisco, there are now many more below-market-rate (BMR) units in the pipeline. The reason is that luxury-unit developers are mandated to produce on-site 12 percent affordable housing in 10- to 24-unit properties and 25 percent in developments with 25+ units; if choosing to build off-site, there must be 20 percent affordable housing in 10- to 24-unit properties and 33 percent in developments with 25+ units. Alternatively, the developer can pony up money for the City’s affordable-housing fund.

This citywide policy translates to there being an estimated 788 affordable-housing units in the Mission pipeline by 2020. That is housing for about 2,100 working-class San Franciscans.

This is great news, but we realized that the message hasn’t gotten out in the city’s Latino community.

Emphasizing to my team the need for community outreach as neighborhood campaign
MEDA’s outreach is not a quick, one-off meeting; instead, I motivated  my team to share our engagement as a comprehensive campaign to garner input for future community gatherings. Knowing of the need to get correct information disseminated in the Latino community, Community Engagement Manager Dairo Romero (photo, above) has been spearheading this myth-busting campaign.

Our audience is parents who are already involved with a services agency or who have children at Mission schools — people who otherwise would have little time in their busy working lives to attend such a meeting.

Romero leads community meetings at least once a week throughout the Mission neighborhood. His two-hour presentation dispels myths, explains housing options … and prompts many questions. The well-versed, indefatigable Romero always stays until all of these questions have been answered, for his outreach is coupled with a serendipitous survey of sorts. Think of it as a focus group to help us refine how information is disseminated for the next group of families.

As we answer residents’ questions, MEDA learns that of which our community is afraid or about which there is a need for more knowledge, adding that information to the next presentation.

These meetings also serve as a forum for our families, with their concerns part of the collective voice for advocacy to be shared with our community and City leaders.

Learning — and busting — the myths
An initial barrier is getting our families to even apply for BMR rentals in the first place, combating the myth we often hear that “nobody ever wins the housing lottery.”

Romero is hands-on, even helping families fill out applications, plus he is aiming to have such assistance available at other Mission CBO’s. Romero knows that such assistance is needed, and that it gets Latinos into the mindset of applying for affordable-housing opportunities across the City. MEDA learned from other communities that one program or one organization is never going to change the mindset of Latinos believing it is not worth the effort to apply because of the idea that the odds of being selected are stacked against them.

This must be a collaborative, myth-busting effort.

Rental-ready services
Outreach can go only so far without support services to prepare our families to build their assets. I am developing an innovative neighborhood model, with our asset-building programs and our Mission Promise Neighborhood partners, as a concerted community effort to get residents rental ready, which means having a 650+ credit score, under $500 in collections and meeting income guidelines, the latter varying by development. For instance, at MEDA, the lead agency of the Mission promise Neighborhood, a financial-coaching plan is developed to get clients rental ready.

Romero serves as a messenger of hope, dispelling erroneous information around affordable-housing guidelines and explaining the bevy of Mission free services that act as a support system.

Some mistaken information heard in the community:

  • Myth: If you are self-employed and paid in cash, the City has no way to verify your income.
    Fact: A signed Profit & Loss (P&L) statement will generally suffice.
  • Myth: Only people with a valid Social Security Number (SSN) can apply.
    Fact: People with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) can apply for all private developments; there are some restrictions when federal money is involved.
  • Myth: The idea that you make too little or too much household income to be eligible.
    Fact: The vast majority of our families fall along the 20 percent to 120 percent AMI spectrum required for eligibility for some type of affordable housing.
  • Myth: Immigrants have a zero credit score because they are off the radar in this country, so this is an issue in applying.
    Fact: This issue can be addressed at MEDA with alternative products such as a Secured Credit Card, where you put down your own money as the line of credit and pay a monthly bill off that card, with a good credit score achieved usually within a year.

Experienced, empathetic staff
Our community meetings have also revealed that our families are true survivors, and they have made it as far as they have in their lives by seizing every opportunity to succeed with which they are presented.

MEDA’s team commits that when families walk through the doors of Plaza Adelante, our Mission neighborhood center, they receive a positive experience of a dedicated staff member working diligently to help each person achieve their goals. While not everyone can achieve their goal on their first try, MEDA’s team patiently prepares our families for each attempt. This empathy arises from MEDA staff’s life experiences of knowing that not every door on which you knock will open on that first try. (As an example, read our client success story of Luz Bourne-Ruiz, who avoided an owner move-in eviction by winning the BMR rental lottery after six tries and has now moved into her new apartment with her 7-year-old son.)

It’s about fairness and equity
Latinos represent 15 percent of the population of San Francisco, and are 20 percent of the low-income population; however, only Latinos get into just 5 percent of affordable housing in the City. That trend must be reversed.

MEDA’s goal is to make sure that a fair share of Latinos find affordable housing in San Francisco. Community organizing is the means to this end.


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