From Being a Statistic to a Part of the Housing Solution

I can never forget that it was 2001 when I first moved to San Francisco because September 11th happened that year. It was a weird time. Like the pandemic we’re currently living through, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. I accepted my first job after graduating college at a public affairs company and moved into an apartment in the Tendernob. Almost completely oblivious of my status in the world, it never occurred to me that I was a low-income renter spending over 50% of my income on housing. And not only was I one of the lowest paid workers but I was also one of the only people of color on staff. I only lasted two years before I moved to another more affordable city. The advantage of perspective now allows me to see that I was part of a statistical trend that has always plagued the Bay Area: another person of color who was pushed far away from the center of jobs.

Now that I have come full circle to working again in the Bay Area and have the privilege to join the San Francisco Foundation (SFF), I am struck that the equity challenges that I encountered over 20 years ago persist. Data shows that low-income folks, particularly communities of color, are either burdened unsustainably by the cost of housing or leaving the Bay Area at alarming rates, devastating the diversity that makes the Bay Area a vibrant and thriving place. These community members can’t fully participate in the economy and plan for their future because they spend too much of their hard-earned money on rent.

While it can be easy to become discouraged or numb to this reality, I knew I had the chance to make a difference. And I knew I had found my tribe of change-makers when I joined SFF and the Partnership for the Bay’s Future (PBF) team. PBF’s composition as a multisector collaborative exemplifies and leads critical strategies that are vital for equitable housing solutions: building capacity in the affordable housing sector, catalyzing policy and financing shifts, democratization of data, and spurring activism for change. I am encouraged by the momentum we’re building that promises to keep communities intact by protecting lower wage workers so they can remain in their neighborhoods and homes, and where we – a broad array of partners including community and faith-based organizations, and leaders in the civic, private and philanthropic sectors – invest in more affordable housing development with creativity and an equity mindset.

On the building capacity and catalyzing policy front, I recently attended a convening of the PBF Policy Grantees and was struck by the diverse levers of change that cities, community organizations and their housing expert Policy Fellows are pulling to protect tenants and make housing more affordable across the Bay Area. Because these efforts are built on the idea that the community must have a voice in policy creation through partnering CBOs with jurisdictions, grantees’ policy plans – such as Tenant/Community Opportunity to Purchase Acts (COPA/TOPA) being proposed in several jurisdictions – are gaining ground. Just look at San Jose, where hundreds of community members showed up for the COPA Cumbia event. This event built support for community ownership models by helping community members understand how policies like this can benefit immigrant and BIPOC communities and how they can get involved. The virtuous cycle of this work is not only the preservation and production of affordable housing in lower income communities across the region, but it is also helping expand the state-wide scale of community land trust (CLT) organizations as they are integral in helping fund COPA/TOPA projects. The growing membership of the California Community Land Trust Network and the proliferation of CLT projects grounded in community activism herald a rising tide in the housing justice movement.

Financing of affordable housing across the spectrum of project types has become an all-hands-on deck endeavor. For example, PBF’s Family of Loan Funds for producing and preserving affordable housing, stewarded by LISC Bay Area, exemplifies entry points for corporate partners to invest in a collective vision for a more equitable and affordable Bay Area. I was particularly inspired by a recent LISC event in Oakland that highlighted partnerships with housing developers, banking institutions and faith-based organizations looking to build affordable housing on their land. How exciting that LISC is expanding their cohort of the Faith And Housing program to include multiple Bay Area counties!

On another encouraging note, data is more transparent and available than ever to those committed to solving the housing crisis. We are in an exciting time when data has finally been harnessed for accountability and action – the Bay Area Equity Atlas being a crucial resource for tracking how we are doing on inclusive prosperity across the people, place and power equity framework. And if you haven’t checked out the Housing Readiness Report and Evictorbook, these are great examples of collaborative data projects that put powerful information into the hands of community residents and housing advocates to create political will and apply pressure toward ensuring more affordable housing is available in the Bay Area. The Housing Readiness Report holds cities accountable for their affordable housing commitments to the State; and the Evictorbook removes the veil of corporate real estate ownership so that residents who receive eviction notices can inform themselves and fight back.

The final key is shifting the narrative to grow public support and political will for housing and racial justice. The collaborative project Shift the Bay has developed strategic messaging based on evidence-based research. This work is unseating negative attitudes about affordable housing and racial equity, and fostering a political environment where policy wins can be achieved at the local and state level. With significant work ahead on the policy front, storytelling as part of advocacy and organizing is essential to passing legislation and ballot initiatives that will change the unjust systems. I am excited to be one of many in this movement that is mobilizing communities, directing resources and changing policy in unprecedented ways.

What an honor to be joining you all in ensuring the Bay Area is a diverse, equitable and affordable place where people from all walks of life can thrive. Your work inspires me, and I look forward to learning from and working with you all.

Elisa Orona is the new Senior Director for the Partnership for the Bay’s Future. Please feel free to reach her at eorona@sff.org.

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