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“If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination…Housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic in 2014.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Hello, Srishti. You have time to help me?” I know who it is. Like clockwork, she came to my office every day.
Judy (56) was a Korean American resident in the Mountain View low-income/affordable housing building, Tyrella Gardens, where I was working as a MidPen Family Services Coordinator.
A divorced, immigrant, single mother, and a Section 8 recipient, Judy had to navigate the bureaucratic Santa Clara County Social Services system alone. She often reached out to me for rental assistance, legal advice, tax education, resume building, or job search help, and to decipher the English legalese on official documents.
In August of 2019, armed with Coates’ wisdom and a naive passion for justice, I ventured into a career in affordable housing. Little did I know, my clients and I were ill-equipped and set up for failure. I was just another added number to a high rate of attrition of Resource Coordinators at affordable housing facilities, and Judy’s loss of housing was collateral damage.
When Judy tried to access resources in Santa Clara County, it often resulted in confusion, frustration, and even aggression from county employees. Judy, lost in the labyrinth of an unfamiliar language, would repeat herself and struggle to answer the litany of personal questions asked. The county employees, overwhelmed with the number of calls received, tried to get through each client quickly.
English language fluency, dedicated time, and deference dictate the probability of a positive result.
Case Study 1: Judy frantically calls various organizations for a government-issued cell phone plan. They tell her she is ineligible. I call a few hours later and she has a phone in her hand within the week.
Case Study 2: Judy reaches out to the local church for rental assistance. They tell her she isn’t the right fit for their donation program. I reach out to the same church on her behalf and a few weeks later, after some paperwork and interviews, Judy receives rent relief.
Affordable housing corporations build a niche market of jobs for Resource Coordinators, capitalizing on their empathy and desire for equity, to meet the demands of their municipalities. Housing instability positions 40% of Californian renters with the invariable choice of having to allocate half of their income for rent. These renters become financially vulnerable and are increasingly reliant on government-funded resources. Lip service and self-congratulatory behavior about housing policy by notable leaders calls for media attention. Instead, left in the wake are the underpaid, understaffed Resource Coordinators with the onus of uplifting the disenfranchised.
“I can’t imagine you not here, Srishti. You help me so much,” Judy said to me one afternoon after searching for jobs.
Those words echoed heavy and hollow.
It was a laborious job. I serviced the residents at two different housing locations, independently taught and developed the after-school program for kids (many of whom had learning disabilities), created the high school program for teens, ran the farmer’s market, conducted countless engagement events, and more. To top it all off, a lot of my time was spent tediously cataloging my work on Salesforce for upper management, who seemed more concerned with the data-tracking tool than with their employees on the ground.
For many months, I was at an impasse. I couldn’t decide if I should leave Tyrella Gardens. I didn’t feel valued, I didn’t feel supported, I wasn’t paid well, and I was perpetually ill.
Internally struggling, I went back and forth between these questions: If I left, how would my absence make Judy feel? How would my coworkers fare without my help? Was the pay worth the hours I put in? Did I feel valued by MidPen Housing? Did I feel supported by MidPen Housing? Was the job sustainable?
The pandemic was a chaotic trigger in my life and Judy’s. I quit my job at Midpen Housing in February of 2020 and the lockdown began soon after. My immediate worry was — how would Judy fare?
Perhaps, I should have been apprehensive of my own housing situation. I was living with three roommates and three out of the four of us were without consistent sources of income. We concluded that the responsible thing would be to break the lease.
Our property management company made it an arduous and expensive ordeal — it would cost me more to break the lease than it would be to stay. Either way, I didn’t have the funds. I never thought that I, an educated and resourceful Indian American from the Bay Area, would be caught up in what felt like housing injustice.
I received a Facebook message from Judy, who continues to reach out to me for help.
April 12, 2020: “Hello. I will stay home April & May. Coronavirus. Do I need time off? Could you call me?”
Judy was concerned about her job as an Amazon shopper at Whole Foods, which I had helped her attain.
Unclear of what to do about my housing, I searched “tenant rights for San Jose residents” on my phone as I logged on to Judy’s work portal on my computer to figure out how she could take time off and pay her bills.
Judy, a proactive woman, is a byproduct of circumstance. I know this because I know Judy — why she needs help, her backstory, how to communicate with her to get an informative response. But most importantly, our shared history as Asian immigrants help us have productive, respectful conversations.
“You are so nice, Srishti. You always help,” she said once as she handed me fruits. She was grateful to be shown kindness, but I was only doing my job.
I knew the residents disliked the turnover of people in my position. They told me stories of all the other Coordinators who had come before me. Those in my position felt like bad actors in a mythical story. I didn’t want to be another in a series of transient people in their lives that seemed to care momentarily. I lugged this weight around with me.
I kept promising them I would stay, but I had noticed a trend. Our group of around fifty Family Service Coordinators would meet once a month and one by one, I saw older coworkers exit the organization and new faces replace them. After 8 months, I was a replaced face too. At least 10 out of 50 employees were gone within the year — a 20% loss and a turnover rate that is high for any organization.
In June of 2021, I contacted the cohort of coworkers I worked with at MidPen: Jennifer Villasano (23), Kristi Seymour (24), Diana Lumbreras (25). We had started our time at MidPen together in August of 2019 and they were still there when I left in February of 2020.
Were they able to debunk my theory that the Coordinator position in affordable housing is an unsustainable job?
Villasano laughed and thought back to when she first joined MidPen, “It was my first job out of college…At first I thought, I get to give back to my community” and then she noted it became “hard to give more” partially because of the organization she was working for.
She continued to work during the pandemic and was appalled by how MidPen did not value her safety. “Residents and co-workers wouldn’t wear masks during the pandemic and I didn’t want to be exposed [to COVID],” she continued, “One of the residents got COVID and because of some Act, management wouldn’t tell us who.” She felt this was a breach of her well-being since she had to continue to “flyer” at the housing facility and interact with all the residents.
“No one was checking in on the coordinators. It was exhausting.”
Jennifer Villasano quit in July of 2020.
As to why she left, she decisively stated, “Instead of speaking up for us, [management] would ask us to do more. They wouldn’t support us…They need to do better.”
Kristi Seymour, a Guyanese-American woman, corroborates that, “Management wasn’t the best. Expectations weren’t met. That could also tie into the high turnover rate. If you don’t feel like your managers care about you … you’re not going to tell them anything and leave at the first chance.” Seymour felt slighted by the inconsistent nature of support provided and emphatically asserts, “I think its pay. I think it’s management. As the people actually delivering the services, you’re not getting paid enough for what you do…They expect a lot out of you — running after-school programs and delivering services to 40-50 units.”
Kristi Seymour quit in June of 2020.
Diana Lumbreras, a Mexican-American woman, shared a similar narrative to mine: “MidPen was my first job where I was working with housing, it was interesting to see how it worked. It was about numbers. We didn’t have time to build relationships because we had to get stuff in.”
Lumbreras forged on during the pandemic. The lockdown exacerbated the pre-existing concerns that she had with MidPen.
“Something that happened during the pandemic that actually bugged me was that, of course, mostly everyone at my [housing site] lost their jobs. I was going door to door ‘flyering’ with resources for food banks, assistance for rent, anything and everything that I could find to help [the residents]. When it came to documentation…[management] said that there was no way of documenting my work because it wasn’t something [they] had asked for.”
Diana Lumbreras quit in August of 2020.
“What am I doing here?” She asked herself before leaving her job. “I was told that even if I did more, that there was no way of getting credit for that work … essentially saying, don’t even do [the work] if you can’t document it. That was the part that got me so upset because I was doing so much. I was printing out flyers in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and going door to door.”
The stories relayed to me by the Ghosts of Coordinators Past held a valuable nugget. The Family Services Coordinator position entrenched within the affordable housing complex is integral to the health of the community it serves. Lumbreras poignantly reminds me of this when she tells me, “As an essential worker during the pandemic, I felt important because people were coming to me when they actually needed help.” That weight I was lugging around was part of Diana’s story too. In reality, this burden wasn’t ours to bear. The responsibility to the community of clients and employees should be accounted for in the system attempting to address the housing crisis in the Bay Area.
Family Service Coordinators are servicing low-income to median-income residents and, yet, they are well below the low-income threshold of $58,00 for housing in Santa Clara County themselves. Hourly pay at between $19-$20/hour, the average person working in affordable housing is making a yearly salary of a whopping $38,400 before taxes, and are most likely people of color. How can those tasked to elevate the marginalized put their best foot forward when they are being marginalized themselves?
California housing prices have been on the rise. In May of 2021, the median home price in California was $818,260 with the SF Bay Area region clocking in at a 38.9% increase in the median home price since 2020 — the highest increase in the state. The nuclear family home, which was more attainable for the Baby Boomer generation, is a far-fetched dream for 44% of California residents. Despite the eviction moratorium being extended for another three months with the offer of all low-income past-due back rent being paid by the state, renters have been in a precarious situation for the last year, their benefits and interests at the whims of their landlords.
California housing policy is trending toward investment in affordable housing communities. Tina Rosales, a Policy Advocate at Western Center on Law & Poverty (WCLP) based in Sacramento is pushing for equitable and fair housing. In a concerted effort with WCLP, Francisco Dueñas, Executive Director of Housing Now, advocates for the divestment of government resources from private construction and into affordable housing and Land Trusts.
Since 2016, Santa Clara County has been on track to exponentially increase accessible housing when residents voted for Measure A in an effort to alleviate housing injustice. Measure A approved $950 million to build 4,800 affordable housing units in the county. Since then, the county has dedicated more funds to affordable housing while overlooking their commitment to the communities they serve.
Affordable housing is the future of Bay Area housing. Thus, forthcoming policy must account for evidence-based case studies. Narratives of employee loss and its subsequent adverse effect on residents are an emerging barrier to housing equity.
Ultimately, the residents suffer.
I kept reaching out to Judy but hear from her less and less. Embroiled in my own housing fiasco, the upkeep of our relationship recedes to the backburner.
On May 25, 2021, I finally received a message from Judy: “I stay in Korea. I can call around this time tomorrow.”
When we speak, she informs me that in September of 2020, her Section 8 rent had increased from approximately $120 to approximately $600. Unable to afford rent and scared of resuming work, Judy moved back home with her parents in Korea. She decided to wait out the pandemic in Korea but was hopeful she could come back to the US after the pandemic. With no address on hand and no paperwork filed, Santa Clara Housing Authority (SCCHA) revoked Judy’s Section 8 housing when MidPen marked her as an absentee renter.
Since May of 2021, Judy and I have been trying to access her SCCHA specialist to figure out how to move forward. Judy wants to resume residence in America but cannot do so without Section 8 housing. The SCCHA offices are closed (in a time when their services are most necessary) and the operators manning the phone lines have not given any clear answers — we are stuck in cyclical redirection.
Affordable housing was effective for Judy when someone could guide her through the government regulations. Diana Lumbreras similarly posited, “I would put the resources out there, but the same people that lived in the housing were limited in the knowledge that they had to get the resources.” Judy’s back-rent can be paid by the state, but that decision came too late in this particular case. The system failed Judy.
Though I was edged out of the apartment I was living in at the beginning of the pandemic, I finagled my way into a Below-Market-Rate apartment that was listed as an affordable housing unit in San Jose. I managed to pay off the previous landlord and save money at my new complex. Affordable housing isn’t perfect, however, it did lend itself perfectly to me.
Judy and I had inequitable outcomes.
Creating resources and delivering resources seem to be at odds with one another. What they require is synergy.
Here are the asks:
- The base pay for Resource Coordinators needs to increase to a number that reflects their invaluable service to the community.
- There should be an increase in employee retention rates at affordable housing sites.
- There should be more on-site staff for support.
- There should be more focus on relationship-building and less on the number of initiatives implemented.
- There should be a symbiotic relationship between resource coordinators and the county services staff.
- There should be a creation of a Union for workers in social services in the state.
“Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute,” proffers Ta-Nehisi Coates.
No home. No country to call her own. Judy embodies the silent way in which housing inequity diminishes a person’s agency and identity.
We need to do better. We have to do better — Not just by creating accessible housing, but by creating sustainable networks of people that can ensure the diverse and equitable growth of our community in the Bay Area.
*We reached out to MidPen Housing for comment. They did not respond to our request.
Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
*Srishti Prabha wrote this article with support from Ethnic Media Services’ Housing Fellowship program.