Relationships Drive Progress and Knowledge Sharing Among Challenge Grant Cohort

Last month, the Challenge Grant cohort of housing justice champions from across the Bay Area came together to discuss their policy efforts in tenant protection and affordable housing preservation. This convening comes at the end of almost a year of working toward policy goals during an unprecedented time.

When we started this work, no one could have imagined we would launch this experimental policy collaboration between government, nonprofit leaders, and community while fighting the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. Even in the most favorable circumstances, passing equitable policies is the result of months and often years of organizing and hard work. These wins require building robust networks of strong relationships, knowledge sharing, and cross-sector support. The Challenge Grant convenings have provided space to do just that.

As the Challenge Grant cohort looks toward the second year of collaboration, coming together presented an opportunity to take stock of progress, troubleshoot common issues, and plan for continuing the momentum of year one. In this fourth convening, we celebrated the progress of two of our Challenge Grant sites: San Jose and Alameda County.

Working to Prevent COVID and Displacement in San Jose

The San Jose team shared some major milestones from the year, including passing their anti-displacement strategy, which was supported by Challenge Grant Fellow Aboubacar “Asn” Ndiaye and community partner SOMOS Mayfair. Other important milestones from the year included winning a grant for a pilot preservation program, creating a community engagement plan, and mobilizing for emergency response during COVID-19.

“We started this in the middle of a plague,” said Asn. “Our response was focused on: how do you start a program in the middle of an emergency?” Early responses to the pandemic included direct aid and rental cash support. Asn expressed hope that the experience, “while difficult and traumatic, will help bind our organizations to work toward long term structural changes.”

One of the San Jose team’s observations was that state legislation will be helpful for a successful Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA) policy. Unlike specific groups such as the elderly or teachers, people who are in jeopardy of being displaced are not currently recognized by California as a population eligible for certain types of state housing funds. If state legislation recognized those at risk of being displaced as eligible for these kinds of funds, that would allow for more local action, including prioritizing these residents’ applications to affordable apartments through new local tenant preferences.

One of the City’s priorities for 2021 will be to plan for the transition from meeting urgent community needs due to COVID-19 to creating an equitable community recovery plan that focuses on enhanced employment pathways with housing and supportive services for lower-income residents. The plan will fold in equity analysis and feedback from the community on their needs.

Centering Community Voice in Alameda County

The Alameda County team also reflected on overcoming difficulties, especially the challenges involved in trying to pass equitable housing policies that benefit the county’s diverse unincorporated areas. As a bright spot, the team pointed to successes in using community knowledge and expertise to guide the way.

Leo Esclamado from Resources for Community Development (RCD) said, “Our tenants live in constant fear not to shake the boat, so we came together in a small-but-mighty, very powerful Eden Renter’s Union to say what the community needed—and this was our gold standard.”

Similarly, Challenge Grant Fellow Charles Harris shared, “I wasn’t coming in and teaching anyone about solutions or telling them what they should do, but rather listening to hear about the solutions they already have.”

Alameda County’s partnership with RCD has been significant in moving forward important work in the unincorporated area, such as developing a three-part community-driven strategy to help renters. The strategy includes a proactive rental inspection program to enforce health and safety standards for rental units, rent stabilization measures, and a just cause protection expansion.

Two of the year’s big accomplishments have been the creation of a steering committee focused on moving forward preservation strategies for the unincorporated area and the creation of a policy matrix that lists existing policies and protections, as well as where gaps exist and how those gaps could be filled. Charles is working on a report to summarize this matrix and related conversations.

Throughout the work, the Alameda County team continues to center equity metrics to measure their success. “It’s not how much it costs, but how much does it cost to not do it?” said Leo.

Coming together and looking ahead

The convening not only showcased the excellent work of two Challenge Grant teams, but also demonstrated the strength of the relationships that have developed over the past year and the power of collaboration. The presentations sparked a lot of engagement from the cohort, including many questions and observations about facing similar issues, as well as sharing support and resources from their different communities.

No one strategy or jurisdiction will solve the housing crisis on its own. It’s clear we’ll need the collective wisdom of government and community leadership. We know that it takes a vibrant network of diverse, dedicated folks to create meaningful policy change. As we look toward the second year of this program, the Challenge Grant cohort is poised to build on a foundation of powerful and enduring relationships. The team is eager to continue to adapt and meet the moment to advance protection and preservation policies.

“It’s motivating to me to be in these spaces,” said Matt Gustafson from SOMOS Mayfair. “So much of this work is relational.”