Housing: What We're (Trying) To Do

By: Avani Patel

Housing – it’s clearly the issue that East Palo Alto and Belle Haven residents are most concerned about as Facebook’s continuous expansion has attracted foreign investors, driving housing prices higher than they’ve ever been. After learning about housing policies, I wrote a blog post. I’ve continued to plug myself into conversations about housing for EPA residents and families.

I researched housing in these communities months ago because even though my own background is in education, and the Peery Foundation’s Local Strategy has mainly focused on education, we could not turn a deaf ear to what principals, non-profit leaders, and residents in the community were all saying were having a devastating toll on the community, families, the children.

At San Mateo County’s Achievement Gap Summit on October 15th, Dr. Gloria Hernandez-Goff of the Ravenswood City School District and Peter Fortenbaugh, Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula (BGCP) talked about the urgency and importance of these issues. Peter noted that, “housing and how to navigate the school system” are some of the top issues families are dealing with right now.” There is an additional burden as, “Students are becoming income providers to pay rent,” he added.

Dr. Hernandez-Goff reflected on her own experience trying to secure housing: “Trying to rent a home in East Palo Alto is like going on a job interview. I went on those interviews and I failed 4 times before I was able to secure a home. And I’m the superintendent. Imagine what this means for our families who may or may not have status or documents.” The housing search for families has been difficult and has impacted the district: “Last year we lost 60 families, and this year we’ve lost 150 students,” due to families not being able to keep housing due to skyrocketing prices (rent control does not apply to single family homes).

The situation with housing has had a detrimental impact on the children and youth in the community, adding another layer of stress and potential trauma. We’ve been trying to figure out ways to modify our strategy, as the community’s needs shift. I’ve been listening to community stories, and also been circling back with housing attorneys at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLSEPA). Jason Tarricone, lead housing attorney at CLSEPA, said one of the ways private dollars could help is to support more housing attorneys to help keep families in their homes, specifically those families that may not have agency or social capital on their own. So, the Peery Foundation has partnered with CLSEPA, giving an unrestricted grant to help them potentially hire another attorney.

In addition, I met with Phil Hwang, CLSEPA’s Executive Director, and Jason again, and we brainstormed small ways private dollars could help families directly. We came up with a Rescue Housing Fund in partnership with CLSEPA and Philanthropic Ventures Foundation to create a fund that is to be used for families to help keep them in their housing. One example could be to support a family with a parent in between jobs and needs access to a small amount of funds to be able to keep their home. Another example is if rent is due on the 1st and they don’t get paid until the 5th – a small amount of money could relieve a family from the accrued late payments they get hit with.

We realize the problem is much bigger than this – but we felt the urgency to act, and found trusted partners who were willing to experiment with us. We moved from a series of conversations to actions because we stayed rooted in the issue, keeping our families at the forefront of our minds. Since we created the fund, another funder has also contributed!

Let’s continue to have conversations that lead to action. Let’s talk about what we can do today AND what we need to do to reach more systemic, longer-term solutions. There are many foundations, investors and donors trying to support the youth and families in the communities of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven. If we don’t collectively respond to the issue of housing (even if it’s not the ‘issue area’ we’re in), what will that say for our past and present investment in the community? Conversely, if we do collectively respond to the issue of housing for some of our most underserved families in the Silicon Valley – imagine the hope, the dignity we could potentially help restore for the families we’re already trying to support in other ways. If you have any other ideas, feel free to comment below.