Pandemic puts pressure to keep low-income residents in homes

There's a renewed sense of urgency to keep some of the Bay Area's Latino neighborhoods affordable and accessible for the people who live there.

Some community groups weighing in on the issue say the pandemic may have temporarily changed the dynamic and helped put a pause on some residents being pushed out.

At Casa Arabella in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, Fabiola Garcia brings her 4-month-old son, Nathan, home to a quiet courtyard every day. It's an oasis from the hustle-and-bustle of the outside world.

"It feels great," Garcia said, "Just the fact that I have my own place, my own space. It's a blessing."

Garcia, her mom and two older children moved into their two bedroom apartment at the affordable housing development in fall of 2019 - right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Garcia is a case manager at a homeless shelter in San Francisco. She and her family were homeless themselves, for six months, while she was working full-time, because the cost of renting an apartment was out-of-reach. Her family rented a single room for that difficult six month period, until their application was granted to live at Casa Arabella.

The 84 -unit building is operated by The Unity Council and EBALDC non-profit community groups. In order to qualify for housing, people must be considered low-income and make 20 percent of median income per household in Alameda county, which means less than 80,000 to $100,000 a year.

"There are incredible pressures on our families to afford to live here," said Chris Iglesias, CEO of The Unity Council.

The planning for Casa Arabella began back in the 1990s, and took decades to complete, in part because funding dried up during the 2009 financial crisis.

Iglesias said now, there is a renewed sense of urgency among government agencies and corporate financial sponsors to get housing projects completed more quickly. Construction began this summer on a new affordable housing complex next door to Casa Arabella, that will have 181 more units of affordable housing.

Also during the pandemic, The Unity Council purchased three existing housing and retail properties to convert those units to rent-controlled affordable housing.

"This is really essential worker housing," Iglesias said. "We do need to have our essential workers closer and in the core of our cities. We don't want them to have to move to the Central Valley."

He said there's a new appreciation for essential workers, because of their role during the pandemic.

The pandemic also brought in new sources of state and federal rent relief.

"In the Bay Area, the most fundamental cost of living, is our home," said Gabriel Medina, executive director of the La Raza Community Resource Center. The non-profit organization in San Francisco's Mission district helps people with immigration services, food insecurity, affordable housing applications and rent relief services.

During the pandemic, the group helped disseminate state and federal rental relief funds to 798 households in the Bay Area. 

"We're just one provider of dozens that gave out rental subsidies," Medina said. 

But there is still much more work to be done.

 "Rents are not going down - at all," said Garcia, who frequently hears about the housing challenges her friends and others in the community face.

 "We still have long waiting list [for affordable housing units]. We're still starting to see how this plays out," said Iglesias.

 But among the uncertainty, there is a sense of optimism that with more social programs and shifting priorities, post-pandemic, community groups can start to "catch-up" on the housing gap.

 Garcia sure hopes so.

 "I think it's great. Affordable housing means opportunity for people. I wish they would build more," she said.

 To wrap up Hispanic Heritage month, La Raza Community Resource center will host its yearly fundraiser, "Noche de La Raza" on Thursday, Oct. 14. The event will happen at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco, 5:30 - 7:30 p.m., in-person, with vaccination verification required. For more info, contact