This year’s UnidosUS Annual Conference will be hosted in San Diego, a community that celebrates Hispanic heritage and shows its contributions to American society through the exchange of cultures and commerce. California is our largest Affiliate region, and San Diego is home to eight Affiliates supporting the Latino community. These Affiliates serve more than 150,000 clients in San Diego alone, in the areas of civic engagement, education, health, and housing. In our “Road to San Diego” series we highlight the inspiring work they are doing in their community and the power of collaboration and leadership that is inherit within the UnidosUS Affiliate Network.
In this article, we feature Community HousingWorks (CHW) and MAAC, two organizations working to give families opportunity and the means to self-sufficiency. Among the many issue areas CHW and MAAC take on, affordable homes is key to their work of improving the lives of the community they work with, and they even take it one step further. The residents at their housing communities are getting civically involved advocating with the San Diego Housing Federation (SDHF) and their program Residents United Network (RUN).
Rafael Monroy is invested in his work: “If you’re not, what’s the point?” he says. And he’s not only invested because he has a passion to help, but also because he knows what it’s like to be without a home. A Marine Corps veteran, Rafael, a single dad, was suffering from PTSD, and after having to undergo hip replacement, even though he had a job, he ended up losing his home. For two months, he was living in his car.
He knows the struggle. He knows a home gives a person dignity.
Rafael, from MAAC’s Community Economic Development Resident Services, has spent five years organizing residents in one of MAAC’s largest properties, President John Adams Manor in San Diego; and for five years, he has taken residents to advocacy days in Sacramento through RUN’s lobby days, when hundreds of resident leaders and advocates join in California’s capital “to speak as one voice with legislators and staff about current affordable housing/homelessness bills and how they can change the lives of Californians,” as explained on RUN’s website. Through MAAC’s intensive leadership training program, Resident Leaders-Popular Education, he’s helping residents define their vision for the future, and figure out how to get there: “It is about establishing our needs and be able to go out in the community and create those resources for ourselves,” Rafael explains. He wants the community to see and realize their value, the power of their voice: “When a community learns to do this—and not only the residents, but the youth in the community as well—now it self-perpetuates. People start teaching other people and that’s what we’ve been able to develop here.”
Through Resident Leaders-Popular Education, people who had been disengaged and disempowered are becoming aware and informed, facilitating their becoming engaged in key issues in order to influence policy. The residents are asked to complete six Resident Leader training workshops, to then become advocates for housing and other issues that most profoundly impacts the quality of life in their neighborhoods. “Graduates from the program work to engage their own networks on community issues and how as residents they can exert their voice and effect change that improves their lives,” Rafael explains.
“YOUR STORY TOUCHES PEOPLE’S LIVES”
María Hernández knows this well. In 2007, after a year and a half of sleeping on couches with her daughter, she saw a sign to call Community HousingWorks to rent in a new affordable apartment building, Solara in Poway, California. She had tried to get into other affordable homes communities, but the waiting lists were long. “Community HousingWorks was a godsend,” says María.
Twelve years later, she’s still living in the same home that made her cried when she first walked in: “This is our home,” María recalls telling her daughter. “We don’t have to worry anymore.”
That was the start of her journey into advocacy and leadership development. Anabel Sanchez, Community Engagement Coach at CHW, introduced María to the SDHF and RUN in 2013, when MAAC and CHW became partners with the federation to educate, engage, and mobilize resident leaders about affordable homes issues throughout the county. “She said I’d be a great candidate,” María says, and her investment in the issue proves Anabel right: “Knowing that there are a lot of people in need of affordable housing, knowing the severity of the housing crisis, being a single mom living on a fixed income, I know how difficult it is and I wanted to help solve the problem,” María says.
Two years after starting her classes at RUN’s Resident Leader training program, María enrolled in San Diego Miramar College as a political science major, and she’s now thinking about running for City Council in Poway, “which will make me the first Latina to ever run for City Council in Poway,” she shared. “I never thought my voice had this much power, being a single mom and living on disability: I didn’t see it. Then I realized that, yes, ‘your voice is important, your voice is powerful, your story touches people’s lives.’”
She knows that firsthand. When she first went to Sacramento for lobby days, she became friends with Poway State Representative Brian Maienschein: “Actually, I chased him down the hall in Sacramento that time,” she laughs, and after working with him on affordable homes, they became friends. “He was the only Republican to vote yes on SB-2, Building Homes and Jobs Act, in 2017, and after that, he has now become a Democrat.” In a press release sent earlier this year, Maienschein said: “I can either keep fighting to change the Republican Party or I can fight for my constituents. I choose to use my energy and skills for the people I represent.”
A JOB WELL DONE
President John Adams Manor is one of MAAC’s largest properties in one of the most challenging communities: “There was a point in this community when we had seven homicides on the property, in a 12-year period,” Rafael says. “That hasn’t happened with MAAC. We have been able to work with the residents and the community, and that has begun to change: that’s what brought me here.”
Rafael Monroy first arrived in MAAC in 2006, as Dean of Students for their Charter School, and six years later he joined the Residential Services team, working on the Community Economic Development STEP Centers, which focuses on helping residents reach self-sufficiency at all levels, including speaking up for themselves. Their determination and hard work have led to MAAC residents receiving six Ruby Awards from the San Diego Housing Federation, which honors the best people, projects, and achievements in the affordable housing industry. Rafael speaks very proudly of these awards because his residents have earned them by taking on righteous projects. “We have residents here in this property who have been able to build a bypass over one of our freeways because it was so unsafe for pedestrians,” Rafael explains proudly, showcasing how the leadership program his residents are part of is helping them improve their community.
These residents have truly been empowered through the leadership training and have gone on to become part of RUN: they now know about the power of being organized, about their responsibility to others, and about feeling ownership and pride in where they live. “If you are going to organize people to have power, show them: ‘This is what power means and what it does,’ y que la gente venga con ganas to be there,” Rafael says, providing clear examples of how his residents are showing up, working on public safety issues, on creating new bus routes, and on advocating to eliminate food deserts. “This is work that we do with our local council people.”
Community HousingWorks is also a Ruby Award recipient. These two organizations work closely on this issue together, sharing best practices to scale their impact in the business they are both in: helping people. Their leadership and advocacy work is a great example of it, empowering their residents to share their stories during advocacy days because it is through stories like María Hernández’s and Rafael’s, as well as Anne Bradley’s and Jonathon Bradley’s that “we get things done,” explains Rafael.
“Everybody deserves a home, some place where they can afford to live, not worrying about having to choose between paying rent or covering their other basic needs,” María says. “Everybody deserves stability.”