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Latino Health Access tenant counselors address community health, housing needs


Like nearly all of California, Santa Ana is grappling with a significant shortage of affordable housing. In this city of more than 300,000 people an hour’s drive south of Los Angeles and 10 miles from the coast, where the majority of residents are renters, the average monthly rent is $2,079 as compared to $1,476 nationally.

For residents like Alejandra Lopez, a 36-year-old house cleaner, the high cost of housing means she and her husband, a house painter, spend nearly all of their monthly income on a studio apartment that costs $1,700 a month and that they share with their five children who range in age from 20 to 6.

“If all goes well, we earn about $2,000 a month. Other times, we earn just enough to pay our rent,” she says, adding that the rent has been slowly increasing. “We have tried to speak with our landlord, but he doesn’t want to hear from us. He just wants us to pay the rent. And he charges us $100 a day for each day we are late.”

Lopez would like to find a less expensive apartment. But doing so has proven difficult because of the size of her family, she says. “Because of the amount of people in my household, most landlords require us to rent at least three bedrooms, and we can’t afford that.” Previously, her family was renting a cheaper studio in her current apartment complex, but when a bed bug infestation was discovered, her landlord insisted that the family either move to the more expensive studio, or find another place to live. He has yet to let them return to the cheaper studio.

Though frustrated with her landlord, Lopez is also determined to fight for better housing, not only for herself but also for her fellow tenants. To that end, three years ago she trained to become a volunteer “Consejera de Vivienda,” or tenant counselor, which is a community member with shared lived experiences that they leverage to better connect with and assist their neighbors to address specific needs.

This model of trained community members – often referred to as the “Promotora” model – was developed in Latin America to serve as a bridge between underserved communities and the health care system. Today it is widely used both there and in Latinx communities in the United States, including in Santa Ana, where 76% of residents are Hispanic or Latinx.

There, trained community members are addressing not only health needs, as in the traditional model, but also addressing housing needs, says Hilda Ortiz, Policy Coordinator of Latino Health Access, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen tenants’ rights and is a member of the Kresge Foundation’s “Advancing Health Equity Through Housing” cohort of grantees.

“Through the Consejeras, community members who have experienced some type of difficult situation with their housing share their experiences,” says Ortiz. “That has led to conversations in the community about the need for a tenants’ union that the Consejeras have created and named, Union de Inquilinxs Esperanza, or, Hope Tenants Union, to represent themselves at the City Council meetings and build that collective power.”

Last October, the Consejeras helped to secure a big win for tenants’ rights when the Santa Ana City Council passed a rent stabilization ordinance to limit annual rent increases and a just cause eviction ordinance to protect tenants against unjust evictions.

As Ortiz explains, “Before COVID hit, we worked in collaboration with other community groups, including Tenants United Santa Ana, to collect signatures to try to get these policy initiatives on the local ballot, but were unsuccessful twice. When the pandemic hit, we wanted to continue to collect signatures, but it became much harder to do because of the ‘Stay at Home’ orders. So, we activated the Consejeras. They were able to engage lots of tenants who were losing their jobs and facing evictions and really organize community support for the initiatives.”

She continues, “The City Council vote is a huge win for tenants. Now the Consejeras are informing their communities as to what it means. We are working with them to offer workshops to tenants to make sure that tenants understand the new rights they now have. We are finding that many landlords are still trying to increase rents more than what is permitted, or are trying to figure out ways to evict tenants that are not protected by the ordinance.”

Nevertheless, the members of the Hope Tenants Union understand that their work is not done, says Ortiz. “The state court-mandated COVID protections expire at the end of March, and we have at least 11 eviction cases already set to begin hearings in April. Union members are currently planning more ‘Know Your Rights’ workshops and exploring programs that include free legal representations to tenants like the ones in Philadelphia and San Francisco. They plan to bring these programs to City Council to make sure that councilmembers know that there is more work to be done on the housing front, and that they need to expand tenant protections even further.”

Lopez, who is a member of the Hope Tenants Union founding committee, agrees, and is committed to continuing to improve the housing situation for low-income residents of Santa Ana.

As she says, “Families have been under so much stress from the pandemic. And there are so many people who need the help. It’s very sad to see it. But I am also hopeful that our union can help them.”