“Hello, Srishti. You have time to help me?” I heard someone ask me in broken English.
I knew who it was. Like clockwork, she came to my office every day. Judy (56) was a Korean resident in the Mountain View low-income/affordable housing building, Tyrella Gardens, where I was working as a MidPen Family Services Coordinator.
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. Now that the eviction moratorium has been extended for another three months and all low-income past-due back rent is in the process of being paid by the state, it’s time to take account of what actually happened in the last year. Were California’s policies efficacious?
California housing policy is trending towards 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, believes in the divestment of government resources from private construction and into affordable housing and Land Trusts.
Judy is reliant on the resources provided by the low-income/affordable housing community. A divorced, immigrant, single mother, and a Section 8 recipient, she frequently has to navigate the Santa Clara County Social Services system. Judy would frantically come to me for rental assistance, legal help, tax education, resume building, job search help, all in an attempt to decipher the English legalese on official documents.
When Judy would try to access resources in Santa Clara County, it would result in confusion, frustration, and even aggression from the county employees, I could empathize on both ends. Judy, lost in the language, would repeat herself and would struggle to answer the litany of personal questions asked. The county employees, overwhelmed with the number of calls received, just wanted to get through each client quickly. I saw the stark contrast in results when I would call on Judy’s behalf.
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 — would Judy be okay?
…Perhaps, I should’ve been apprehensive of my own housing situation. I was living with three roommates and out of the four, three of us were without consistent sources of income. We concluded that the responsible thing would be to break the lease.
Our property management 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, a well-educated Indian American from the Bay Area, would be caught up in what felt like housing injustice.
Ping! I received a Facebook message from Judy, who would still contact me for the help she needed.
April 12, 2020: “Hello. I will stay home April & May. Coronavirus. Do I need time off? Could you call me?”
Judy was concerned that about her job as an Amazon shopper at Whole Foods — a job that I had helped her get.
Unclear of what to do with my own housing, I searched up “tenant rights for San Jose residents” on my phone as I logged onto Judy’s work portal on my computer to figure out how she would take time off and continue to 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, her social security, her passwords, and her login credentials. But most importantly, our shared history as Asian immigrants helped us have productive, respectful conversations.
“You are so nice, Srishti. You always help,” she would say as she handed me fruits. She was grateful to be shown kindness, but I was only doing my job.
For many months, I was at an impasse. I couldn’t decide if I could leave Tyrella Gardens.
Internally struggling, I went back and forth between these questions: 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?
I knew the residents disliked the turnover of people in my position. They told me stories of all the other Coordinators that had come before me. Those in my position felt like bad actors in a mythical story. I kept promising them I would stay. I didn’t want to be another notch in the series of transient people in their lives that seemed to care momentarily. I lugged this weight around with me – a responsibility to a community.
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 which 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.
The nature of the work required odd hours, but I was not a salaried employee and I couldn’t request overtime. I was reprimanded for wanting to do my job well. The job was slowly taking a toll on my body. I didn’t feel valued, I didn’t feel supported, I wasn’t paid well, and I was perpetually ill.
And I began to notice 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 9 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 began working at MidPen with: Jennifer Villasano (23), Kristi Seymour (24), Diana Lumbreras (25). The four of us had been onboarded together in August of 2019 and they were still at MidPen Housing when I left in February of 2020. I pondered, were they able to debunk my theory of the Coordinator position in affordable housing being 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 notes 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 continues, “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 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, shares 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, so they were just at home. I was going door to door flyering with resources for food banks, assistance for rent, anything and everything that I could find [to help them]. 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 pulling the trigger to leave 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 after all.
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 with me was part of Diana’s story too. In reality, this burden wasn’t ours to bear. The responsibility of the community 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 expected to elevate the marginalized put their best foot forward when they are being marginalized themselves?
Affordable housing is the future of the Bay Area, thus, forthcoming policy must account for evidence-based case studies. Multiple narratives of young employees in affordable housing retiring from their position, and possibly careers in housing, is cause for concern. And, ultimately, the residents suffer.
I kept reaching out to Judy but would hear from her less and less. Embroiled in my own housing fiasco, the upkeep of our relationship was on the backburner.
On May 25, 2021, I received a message from Judy: “I stay in Korea. I can call around this time tomorrow.”
Once we spoke, she informed 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. No address on hand and no paperwork filed, Santa Clara Housing Authority (SCCHA) revoked Judy’s Section 8 housing when MidPen marked her an absentee renter.
Since May of 2021, Judy and I have been, collectively, 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. No one at the SCCHA offices has given us any clear answers and we get stuck in the rigamarole of being directed to different people.
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 in this particular case, that decision came too late. The system had 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. While this story focuses on MidPen Housing, it is a rather overarching issue in Bay Area Housing.
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 the employee retention rates at affordable housing sites.
- There should be more staff on-site to support one another.
- 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 Union for workers in social services in the state.
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.