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Season 1, Episode 4: Fighting COVID-19 Gentrification and Housing Displacement in California

Podcast

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Host: Justice Gatson Local Audio Producer: Lety Valencia

Host: Justice Gatson
Local Audio Producer: Lety Valencia

In this episode, local audio producer Lety Valencia of Faith in the Valley shares the fight against evictions and displacement in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She interviews organizers who worked with residents as they faced a slew of evictions and a lack of response by elected officials. The second segment, hosted by Francisco Dueñas of Housing Now, engages housing activists and policy experts from Housing Now’s statewide coalition who share frontline experiences of the fight for housing rights in California. We hear from Héctor Malvido of Ensuring Opportunity Campaign, Ethan Hill & Ali Akhtar of UAW 2865, Sonya Gray-Hunn of Congregations Organized with Prophetic Engagement, Cynthia Guerra of Kennedy Commission, and Christian Flores of Inland Congregations United for Change. This episode is hosted by Justice Gatson, a Kansas City based organizer, who organizes intersectional movements that uplift the voices of the most marginalized groups.

This podcast acts as a final grant report for Convergence Partnership’s 2020 COVID response grants. The Convergence Partnership is a collaborative of local statewide and national funders to advance racial justice and health equity. The Convergence Partnership podcast series introduces you to people and organizations who are building social, political, and economic power.

Justice Gatson: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Convergence Partnership podcast. Today, our partner foundations and grantees will share their stories on how they are working to improve community health and promote racial justice. The Convergence Partnership is a collaborative of local, statewide and national funders working to transform policy practices and systems to advance racial justice and health equity.

Justice Gatson: This podcast introduces you to people and organizations who are building social, political, and economic power to advance racial justice and health equity. The series acts as a final report for our most recent grantee cohort.

Justice Gatson: COVID 19 has accelerated the housing crisis in California.

Justice Gatson: Before COVID our communities were priced out to the market. It’s not surprising, but it’s still obviously [00:01:00] devastating that it’s worse now during COVID.

Justice Gatson: Yeah. That’s specific COVID style of gentrification has also put pressure on many of the youth within the community because a lot of the older generations have been parents in their family who are at risk and risking their lives to go out and work find that it’s still not enough.

Justice Gatson: From the Gulf Coast to Chicago, to the San Joaquin Valley, to Buffalo and places in between, we are learning how our network is amplifying community power, transforming narratives, and building funder capacity to create a just and inclusive society where all people, especially those most impacted by structural racism are empowered to shape the policies and systems that impact their lives are healthy and can thrive.

Justice Gatson: I’m your host, Justice Gatson. Today, we’re meeting with grantees of the Sierra [00:02:00] health Foundation and the California Endowment. We begin our episode by hearing from a local audio producer to learn more about the critical work Faith in the Valley is doing in California central valley. Later, we sit down with Housing Now! To understand their challenges, to combat the displacement crisis, and creating affordable housing in their region.

Lety Valencia: My name is Lety Valencia. I’m the co-director of organizing for Faith in the Valley, a faith-based grassroots organization that works across five counties in California, Fresno Marcet, Kern, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin. So, I was really worried when news of the COVID-19 pandemic hit California in early 2020.

Lety Valencia:  [00:03:00] The current number of people that tested positive in the state of California.

Lety Valencia: At Faith in the Valley, we knew that low-income families of color would be the most impacted. So we worked really hard to advocate for policies that would protect renters, Blanca Ojeda another organizer with Faith in the Valley explains

Blanca Ojeda: People had lost jobs because of the shelter in place orders. So we knew that you know, renters needed additional protection. We had said rent and mortgage and utility, you know, relief because that was what we were getting from folks that they were meeting.

Lety Valencia: We built a coalition of nonprofit attorneys, community organizations, and community leaders.

Blanca Ojeda: At the time we couldn’t meet in person, but we called and we had a lot of folks leave voice messages, folks providing their testimony. Um, we also like drafted a coalition letter.

Lety Valencia: But in those initial days, the counties never took action.

Blanca Ojeda: We [00:04:00] had tried to fight for eviction moratoriums. However, our county never adopted such a thing. We were really missing the political will.

Lety Valencia: Because local leaders refuse to adopt the policies we pushed for like rent relief and eviction moratoriums. We turned to the state.

Blanca Ojeda: Late summer when we, we had to shift our focus and to try to organize statewide. So, um, we’d formed larger coalitions, you know, just to gain more momentum.

Lety Valencia: And finally, the state passed an eviction moratorium.

Lety Valencia: Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order, banning the enforcement of eviction orders for renters due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Lety Valencia: Additionally, The federal government passed the Cares Act

Lety Valencia: While most of us or sleeping the Senate voted unanimously to pass that historic $2 trillion economic relief package…

Lety Valencia: Which meant that counties in the Central Valley had more money to assist people and small businesses impacted by the pandemic. Four out of [00:05:00] the five counties that Faith in the Valley works with allocated Cares Act funding for rent and utility relief as a result of our efforts and our partner’s advocacy, but Merced did not take action. And so our coalition worked to get that money into the hands of Mercedes community members who needed it most.

Blanca Ojeda: Um, what we started advocating for was the funding of 3 million, where folks in the community could apply for this rental assistance program. And that didn’t pass to like December the very, the very last week. And we ended up winning, um, 1 million. Rent utility and I think mortgage assistance,

Lety Valencia: But even with all of the effort, community members and organizers put into fighting displacement during a shelter in place orders, low-income families were still getting evicted.

Blanca Ojeda: We were getting calls from people that were renting, who had experienced their previous, uh, landlord or property owner, like selling their [00:06:00] properties. And so someone new was coming in. Evicting them, um, or, or upgrading.

Blanca Ojeda: This is what happened in the Harvest Garden, apartment complex in Livingston in Merced county. Flor Dzib is also a community leader with Faith in the Valley. She’s lived in Livingston for over 30 years and she lived in Harvest Garden apartments for a decade. She started getting calls from her old neighbors in late December

Flor Dzib: When they asked me like if I know houses for rent and I say, why are you moving? And they told me, no, no, because I want to move because they have new owners. And the owner said, uh, they changed like the rules. There are no more like low income.

Lety Valencia: Around 10 families were forced to move. Silvia is a mother to one of these families. She has two sons who are students at Livingston High School and UC Merced.

Silvia: [00:07:00] Towards the end of last year in December, we got a letter saying that we had to leave the apartments because we no longer qualified to live there. We were almost left on the street because we couldn’t find a place to live that was affordable for us

Silvia: My children experienced a lack of internet when we moved into the garage that we were living in and it made it really hard for them to be able to complete their studies and, and join all of their classmates online.

Lety Valencia: At one point Silvia and her family stayed with a relative in Stockton, which made it hard for her husband to commute, to work. My husband and I both work in the fields. Um, and when we moved to Stockton out there, it was a longer distance for him to have to travel. And it really affected him at work. This [00:08:00] affected Silvia’s health and she grew sick from the stress. She and her family have a place to stay, but the search was difficult because there is so little affordable housing in Livingston. Flor explains more.

Flor Dzib: The rent is so high here in Livingstone, like 1,500 for a one-bedroom or two bedrooms, 2000. Well, this is too much rent. There is houses for sale, but we can’t afford to house.

Lety Valencia: Even with all of our efforts during the pandemic and the wins we achieved. We need a complete transformation of housing in the Central Valley. So at Faith in the Valley, we’ve just endorsed a comprehensive plan to address the housing and land crisis in California called the Homes Guarantee. It’s a national framework that Faith in the Valley is reinvisioning, so it’s specific to our state and to the Central Valley and our community’s needs. The Homes Guarantee is a north star vision. That includes things like a reinvestment in public housing. [00:09:00] It includes a tenant bill of rights that has provisions like a right to counsel, preserving homes that already exist, ending real estate speculation, and decommodifying housing. Because the housing crisis isn’t getting better and people like Silvia need change. If Silvia could speak with local leaders, she would say this.

Silvia: Yes, please create more housing, more accessible housing for us folks who make low income. We need more of this housing, so that less families experience what we did, especially created here for people like us.

Lety Valencia: Reporting from Merced, California I’m Lety Valencia.

Justice Gatson: That was local [00:10:00] audio producer, Lety Valencia telling us about Faith in the Valley and their critical work in the Central Valley in California during COVID-19. In our next segment Housing Now! CA reflects on the work they have done with support from the California Endowment and the Convergence Partnership.

Francisco Dueñas: My name is Francisco Duenas. I’m the executive director for Housing Now! Housing Now is a statewide housing justice advocacy coalition. So that means we work together as a collective to fight for stronger laws or new laws. That will protect primarily low-income tenants of color. Thank you so much. Let me pass it on to Hector.

Héctor Malvido: Um, my name is Héctor Malvido. I am the policy advocacy and community partnerships manager with the Ensuring Opportunity Campaign in Contra Costa county. We work across [00:11:00] sectors with elected officials with tenants, nonprofit organizations, and advocacy groups to uproot systems that create and perpetuate poverty. Now pass it on to Ethan.

Ethan Hill: Hi everyone. My name is Ethan Hill. Uh, I’m a graduate student at UCLA. And an organizer with UAW 2865. UAW 2865 is the union representing over 19,000 academic student employees at the UC campuses statewide. I’ll pass it to Sonya.

Sonya Gray-Hunn: Hi. well, my name is Sonya Gray-Hunn. I’m the housing coordinator with Congregations Organized with Prophetic Engagement, better known as COPE. We are a grassroots faith-based nonprofit organization in the city of San Bernardino. We work in the areas of education, uh, civil engagement, health, and justice reform and merging housing justice for people of color, especially African-American individuals who’ve been [00:12:00] affected by the criminal justice system.

Cynthia Guerra: Hi, my name’s Cynthia Guerra. I am the policy analyst at the Kennedy Commission and the Kennedy Commission is an organization that advocates for the production of more affordable housing that is accessible to very low-income families in orange county.

Cynthia Guerra: Hi, my name’s Ahmed. I am a graduate student in the physics department at UC San Diego, and I’m also an organizer with UAW 2865.

Christian Flores: My name is Christian Flores. I’m a community housing organizer with Inland Congregations United for Change in San Bruno, Riverside, and the Coachella Valley, what are we represent over 30 different congregations and clergy and community members trying to build some power, some advocacy and tenants unions to address the housing crisis that our impoverished communities have been dealing with for so long.

Francisco Dueñas: Thank you so much for joining us for this important conversation. I’m really glad to have everybody on here. How’s everybody doing?

Francisco Dueñas: We’re happy to be here. [00:13:00] Wonderful. 

Francisco Dueñas: We’re here today to talk about the work we have done to address racial and health disparities. So talking about not just the housing crisis that many of you have been dealing with in your communities in California, but then what happened when COVID-19 came along and, you know, how did that accelerate or exacerbate what you all were already seeing on the ground. Why don’t we get started with Sonya?

Sonya Gray-Hunn: So one of the things that we already saw in our community was the housing injustice around individuals of color, especially individuals who had a criminal background, just the disparity of actually getting into housing, then find themselves going into you know, slum lord properties. So COVID-19 just put a stop to what I mean, if there was any opportunity [00:14:00] because of the stay in place order, people could move around. Then the lack of, you know, the employment jobs, which made it even harder for them to pay their rent. Just not being able to maneuver within a system or how can I go somewhere else, landlords not wanting to work with them because they already want them out. So COVID-19 really adds to that stress and that disparity around people of color and primarily African-Americans.

Francisco Dueñas: And what area do you work in of California?

Sonya Gray-Hunn: I’m in San Bernardino.

Francisco Dueñas: Wonderful. And I think Christian, you also work in that community. Would you say that lines up with what you all are seeing?

Christian Flores: Yes, in addition to that as well, not being enough legal representation and that education piece. For undocumented families who are often targeted and harassed and taken advantage of in regards to their lack of understanding of their legal rights as tenants in the Inland Empire, which is already impoverished is just [00:15:00] another big push for landlords to try and get as many of their tenants out as possible to raise those units back up to market rate. As well as, um, with the switch to a lot of Zoom work happening, many folks from the Los Angeles area or areas where renting is higher, have been moving into the Inland Empire, unknowingly playing a role in it as well.

Francisco Dueñas: COVID gentrification happening

Christian Flores: A specific COVID style of gentrification has also put pressure on, on many of the youth within the community, because a lot of the older generations and parents in the family who are at risk and risking their lives to go out and work find that it’s still not enough. So, um, there’s been a severe lack of students applying for college. Presumably because, um, they’re having to pick up the slack for that financial stability.

Francisco Dueñas: Yeah. I saw that. Um, let me ask another part of Southern California before going up to Northern [00:16:00] California. We’ve got Cynthia joining us, Cynthia from the affordable housing developer angle what are you all seeing?

Cynthia Guerra: So before COVID our communities were priced out like lower-income communities were priced out of the market. I mean, it’s not surprising, but it still obviously devastating that it’s worse now during COVID….. for example, or have been the hardest hit by COVID here in Orange County, not surprising because a lot of the folks live in overcrowded conditions to try to make those really high rents and so it’s just been devastating based on the outreach report that is done annually. You know, you have to make $46.62 dollars an hour to be able to afford a two-bedroom in Orange County that amounts to if you’re working full-time, which not all of our folks in our lower income community work full time um, you have to make around 88,000 dollars a year and Anaheim, the median income, there is $65,313. And in Santa Ana it’s [00:17:00] $57,151. And so those median incomes are nowhere near right, $88,000 a year. So you have also medical bills that you can’t even account for. There’s really large debt for back payment of rent. So the cities before COVID hit, weren’t producing enough affordable housing. But they have done, they have met and exceeded the amount of market-rate housing that they had to produce. A market-rate housing is not, um, income restrictive. If the situation was better before, I guess is what I’m trying to say in Orange County it is, a lot worse now

Francisco Dueñas: A lot to think about and consider. I’m just wondering if I could ask Hector from the Northern part of this state to share briefly a little bit about, you know, what you have seen in COVID wondering if this resonates?

Héctor Malvido: Yeah, absolutely 100%. I think that’s in Contra Costa county. We’ve seen a lot of what COVID has done, but the [00:18:00] loopholes and the inequities really exacerbated the impact of COVID on low-income communities of color. You know, between 2002-2015 Contra Costa county experienced 55% increase in low-income households of color, and also rent rose a lot by, I think, 30% in some areas. There was a complicit attitude from certain county supervisors and elected officials and respective cities that have just not really moved on closing these gaps or showing up for tenants in the way that they need to, but the consequences, the destruction of communities, the displacement of families, and now in COVID literally can lead to death. So, I mean, these preexisting conditions are fatal in many ways and we need to work to fix them as best as fast as we can.

Francisco Dueñas: Yeah, that’s a huge problem. I’m wondering if I could have Ahmed share a little bit [00:19:00] about his story and what they’re facing currently with COVID and, and how things are going.

Ahmed: So, yeah, basically in March, the housing department that sort of manages graduate housing announced a massive rent increase for new tenants moving in, in June upwards of 85% increase in rent. Higher education has already so inaccessible for people from marginalized backgrounds. Increasing rents in this way, I think only really exasperates that problem and makes higher education even less successful for people of color people from working families. So what we’re demanding is that UCSD freezes the rent and eliminate these absurd rent increases that they’re putting on tenants and we’ve been organizing actions and trying to build out the movement as quickly as we can and, its already led to some concessions from the University. And we’re really just hoping that you know, [00:20:00] we can keep demonstrating our priority.

Francisco Dueñas: I mean, this is the dynamic of the loopholes, right. That we were Hector had mentioned previously about, you know, how can we have rent increases during this pandemic? Um, Ethan, I don’t know if you could talk a little bit about that, um, before maybe then we can talk a little about how we’re all moving up this work across the state.

Ethan Hill: Yeah, I think, um, I’ll start by just saying that, um, when University of California campuses increase rents really exorbitantly for both undergraduate students and graduate students who are living in university housing, those costs, they, they trickle down, they, you know, affect the surrounding community. Um, And really contribute to these waves of displacement. Hector was just talking about the displacement of tenants of color in particular into Contra Costa county. You know, a lot of those people are coming from Berkeley, from [00:21:00] Oakland and the University of California in Berkeley is one of the central forces that are responsible for contributing to the gentrification of the Bay Area and raising rents for students who have no choice but to move there and live there. If they want to get an education, you know, the cost of rent, it means that landlords in the surrounding cities can increase their rent because the market rate is going up and then it forces people out and it changes, um, changes communities and displaces people.

Francisco Dueñas: Well, as you said, all these various stories from across the state, really show how all these issues are interconnected, right? Um, whether it’s be low-income workers, whether it’s students, church communities, folks that build or advocate for affordable housing, all these things are all interconnected. I’m wondering if folks have a story or can share a little bit about what we have done at the [00:22:00] state level to really push our leaders to respond to COVID-19. Why don’t I hand a Hector, if I could ask you to get us started on that.

Héctor Malvido: So, I mean, one of the, kind of a victory, um, you know, the the current state protections that we have, you know, the rent relief that’s attached to it with that comes a trickling of 1.5% of what total was going to be coming down in Contra Costa. It equal, equal to, I think, a little over $500,000 as advocates. You know, we got together and we wanted to use these additional funds to create a strong, you know, housing stability service. So, I mean, I would definitely consider that a victory coming from, I guess, something that came from the state and then we were able to take it and run with it in Contra Costa.

Francisco Dueñas: Yeah, thank thank you, Hector. I definitely think that’s a [00:23:00] win. You know, when COVID first started, you know, many of our groups were calling for the cancellation of rent as a response to this public health emergency. Um, and I think, you know, on this conversation, we’ve really made the connection between the need for that relief and public health, but I think a lot of people thought that was not doable or possible. And yet here we are a year later with, you know, the support from the federal government. And we’ve been able to push the state government to be able to take those funds and effectively cancel rent for lots of people. As you mentioned, there are some loopholes in there and so I was wondering maybe if Sonya or Christian, you can talk about what those loopholes are and what we’re still fighting.

Sonya Gray-Hunn: Yeah. So, I mean, of course, the win was to get SB91, the emergency rental assistance [00:24:00] in place speaking from, from our organization to be able to identify the multiple gaps that’s within our region. Um, especially at the city level, and that we’re not prepared to fill those gaps when it comes to meeting the needs of our residents, our community members. That there are changes that have to be done. But I think the overall win is to be able to identify the gaps more concretely and saying, this is how we need to move this is how we need to hold decision-makers, accountable for how they roll out programs. Just identifying the gaps in systems and policies, um, around housing was the win.

Francisco Dueñas: Yeah, that’s super helpful. Especially when we’re talking about a big state like California, right? Where the housing crisis looks different in different parts. And then you add on top of that, the COVID-19 response, [00:25:00] that’s definitely going to be different in different parts of the state.

Sonya Gray-Hunn: No, just went to add. You know, it’s just, you know, the reality that we were not prepared to address the needs of COVID-19 which nobody really was. And nobody really saw it coming. But knowing that these funds were available, not just one time from the Care Act, but coming, you know, um, rolling out a second time and we still weren’t prepared.

Francisco Dueñas: Yeah, I’m wondering, um, Cynthia, what you would say as we’re looking, thinking about the work we’ve done together as a collective across the state, what are some of the lessons you think we’ve learned? Um, and what would you tell, you know, other organizations or other funders may be working at the state level?

Cynthia Guerra: I may be coming from an affordable housing lens, but I understand that the issue is multifaceted, right? When it comes to housing, you have really short-term like urgent needs. You know, as far as one of the big wins is creating this consciousness of know that we have a right to demand, um, housing that it’s accessible, affordable, [00:26:00] sanitary, dignified. That’s really important. And I think that you see how this creating this movement statewide and saying like, we want Orange County, Contra Costa, San Bernardino, we’re all experiencing this housing crisis. Then it becomes a statewide issue that then I think manifests into being able to push legislation or bills that in the past, I think would have been really hard to pass like an unheard of and so, so I think that’s one of the biggest wins and bringing in people from different areas that are addressing different parts of the housing crisis, right.

Francisco Dueñas: No, that that was really great. I think you shared, you know, the importance of having diverse, um, partners across the state that are bringing, not just, you know, their perspectives, their solutions, but also their contributions to this political fight to better of how much power we have collectively in order to defend our communities against [00:27:00] this mass displacement and really, you know, uh, build a future for them, right. That works for them, that addresses these pre-existing conditions and creates new conditions that allow people to thrive and be healthy and really be prepared for something like this. Thinking about what Sonya was saying that none of us were ready for. COVID-19 uh, you know, we could have been, we could have been more ready. Um, I just wanted to. Invite folks to look us up online. We’ve got our website HousingNowCA.Org as well as a Facebook page and a Twitter account. And, um, we’re always looking for new coalition partners. You know you don’t have to be steeped in housing justice work. If you see this issue affecting your community, we want to be in conversation with you. We want you to listen in, [00:28:00] learn, and then hopefully take action together across the state on these issues to be able to come up with a new future for our California. Um, if folks would like to be connected if they are in Orange County or Contra Costa County or the Inland Empire, how should people find your organization? Sonya w do you want to get us started?

Sonya Gray-Hunn: So you can find us at copesite.org. That is our website, um, to find out more, you know, more of what we do.

Sonya Gray-Hunn: Yeah. Um, if folks want to get connected to Ensuring Opportunities, they can look us up on Facebook as Ensuring Opportunities campaign, or they can visit our website at endpovertyCC.org ,um, but related to our specific housing We work really closely with the Raise of Roof coalition. Their Instagram is at raise the roof conquered.

Francisco Dueñas: [00:29:00] Yeah, that’s great. So you’ve got to statewide coalition. You’ve got local regional coalitions and it all adds up to more power. Right? Ethan, I think your union is statewide across the whole state, correct?

Ethan Hill: Yeah, that’s right. We are comprised of student workers at every University of California campus. You can find out more about our union at UAW2865org. We also have a Twitter account, and lastly, if you yourself are a student worker in the University of California system, sign up and join your union at our website.

Francisco Dueñas: Wonderful. Thank you.

Cynthia Guerra: This has been a great discussion on how COVID has exacerbated the housing crisis. If folks listening want to learn more about our work at the Kennedy Commission, please visit our website at kennedycommission.org again, thank you so much. This has been, um, a great discussion,

Christian Flores: So, ways that you can get in contact with [00:30:00] Inland Congregations United for Change in San Bernardino, Riverside counties is, um, through our website, ICUCpico.com or through our Facebook page and Congregations United for Change. Or our Instagram page ICU PICO.

Francisco Dueñas: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Christian really appreciate you and all our other coalition partners joining today to talk about the ongoing housing crisis and then how COVID-19 affected that and what we all did together as a state collective to really make sure our communities could withstand and hopefully be resilient and come out of this pandemic in a way that is equitable and just. So thank you all so much for all you do locally and as part of this statewide coalition really appreciate it. And thank you so much for joining us today.[00:31:00]

Justice Gatson: You’ve been listening to the Convergence Partnership podcast. Where we hear stories from both our funders and grantees across the country who are working to create racial justice and health equity. Broadcasting from the Gulf Coast to Chicago, to the San Joaquin Valley to Buffalo, and places in between learning how our network is amplifying community power, transforming narratives, and building funder capacity.

Justice Gatson: To learn more about the Convergence Partnership visit us at www.convergencepartnership.org. That is www.convergencepartnership.org Stay tuned as we continue telling the stories of our work.[00:32:00]