Housing justice champions adapt together at the third Challenge Grant convening

Hi, I’m Evita Chávez, and I just joined the San Francisco Foundation as Associate Initiative Officer for Partnership for the Bay’s Future. I had the privilege of beginning my tenure in this position by attending the third quarterly convening for the Partnership’s Challenge Grants, where members of the Partnership had the opportunity to share with and learn from each other. The quarterly convenings are an invaluable opportunity to gather with thought leaders from throughout the Bay Area and discuss approaches to the region’s historic housing crisis. This year, it is especially important to have a space for these minds to come together as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to elevate the urgency and foundational importance of access to safe, affordable housing.

The consequences of insecure housing on health have cost thousands of lives, forcing many to choose between paying for medical care versus paying for rent. A recent study found that 54% of cost-burdened renters delay care due to costs, with 83% of renters prioritizing paying rent before anything else. Housing Pulse Survey data reports that over 1.2 million Californians are currently behind on rent, a bitter reality for the half of all renters in San Francisco and the East Bay who have lost income during the pandemic. Support for renters has had to move almost entirely online as a result of the pandemic, creating new obstacles to access as many struggle to access internet.

The Challenge Grants quarterly convening provided a space for folks to share what they have learned this year and to meet others who are doing similar work. In a year where we have all learned to live at a distance, the convening provided a space to connect people, ideas, and practices.

I was struck by the overall positivity and optimism of the group. This optimism was supported by a strong camaraderie amongst the participants and deep commitment to housing justice. People seemed genuinely happy to see each other and to hear ideas, with hosts of panels happily exclaiming names of folks who entered the Zoom room. The ends of presentations were met with a flurry of questions, especially asking if materials could be shared within the Partnership and then publicly. Breakout groups were filled with smiles and deep conversation, led by intelligent questions from folks familiar with each other’s work. I took rigorous notes, trying to collect as much of the rich information as I could. I was truly drinking from the firehose, but I savored every second. Continuing in the spirit of communal sharing and learning, I am excited to write about the convening here.

The stated goals of this meeting, the third convening of the Partnership’s Challenge Grant recipients, were threefold: 1) to share regional perspectives on the state of housing during the Covid-19 pandemic, 2) to learn about and share best practices for community engagement virtually and at a distance, and 3) to share and learn about opportunities and challenges to advancing effective tenant protection and preservation strategies. A common word in these conversations was “adaptive,” used not only to celebrate the adaptations these convenings have had to make since the first meeting in March, but also in regard to the work members of the Partnership have been doing on the ground over the past six months and to the public narrative shift around housing as the pandemic has elevated understanding of access to housing as a lever for health equity.

The convening featured a morning session discussing strategies for effectively engaging community during the pandemic and two simultaneous afternoon sessions on preservation and renter protection strategies.

The morning session emphasized the adaptive nature of the work by discussing new challenges to community engagement that have emerged as a result of our new working-from-a-distance normal. While we still face the same challenges of accessibility, such as language barriers, time constraints, and the complexity of government systems, these challenges and our traditional approaches to them have manifested differently in a world trapped on a digital screen. Panelists in the morning session spoke of successful public engagement campaigns and the barriers that still need to be addressed. PolicyLink’s Inclusive Processes to Advance Racial Equity in Housing Recovery: A Guide for Cities during the Covid-19 Pandemic guide is a helpful tool to think critically about and address barriers to community engagement in the Covid-19 era.

The afternoon sessions allowed for more in-depth conversation about perseveration and tenant protection practices that members of the Partnership currently employ, including San Jose’s Anti-displacement Strategy and the current campaign in Berkeley to pass a Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act.

In a time where we are forced to perpetually readjust and adapt, the convening presented an exciting opportunity for the Challenge Grant community to share out what they have learned during this adaptation process and collectively envision a better future for the Bay Area. I look forward to the next convening and all the updates we will be sharing then. In the meantime, keep up with work of the Partnership and the Challenge Grant cohort on Twitter and LinkedIn.