LocationAlhambra , CA
The multipurpose room at Alhambra’s First Baptist Church was jammed with about 150 people Thursday night who came to listen and learn about the affordable housing crisis and relate their often difficult experiences in struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
The free forum, sponsored by Asian-Americans Advancing Justice—Los Angeles, with Grassroots Alhambra and the Alhambra Source serving as co-sponsors, attracted Alhambra Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler and City Councilmember Ross Maza. Also present were the president of the city’s planning commission Allan Sanchez, and Commissioner Andrea-Lofthouse Quesada. Jonathan Horton, a staff assistant to Rep. Judy Chu, and Henry Lo from Assemblyman Ed Chau’s office were also interested observers. Representatives from the San Gabriel Chapter of Habitat for Humanity were also in attendance.
Around the room, a buffet meal, provided by Grassroots Alhambra, was served and young children found a corner table to work on their drawing skills with colored pencils and paper. Representatives from Grassroots Alhambra and the Alhambra Source had tables at the event to explain to the diverse audience their respective missions.
The evening’s program sought to frame the housing issue from the perspective of affordability and to raise awareness on specific aspects of the broader housing issue, which touches not only Alhambra but the state of California and parts of the nation as well. It also sought to bring people together, many of whom said they were struggling with the cost of housing, to hear each others stories and offer, in some cases, potential solutions.
More than 60 percent of Alhambra’s 86,000 residents are renters, with the median rent in the city reaching $1,286 as of 2017, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment ranges from $1,575 to $2,000 per month and the average rent for a two-bedroom unit ranges from $1,775 to $2,325. Rental prices for houses are considerably higher. Alhambra has no rent control ordinance, and the city faces many challenges in building affordable housing.
The evening, organized primarily by Li’i Furumoto, project director for youth and parent leadership development at AAAJ-LA, was divided into several parts. Furumoto served as emcee, thanking all for coming and making sure that everyone who needed translation had access to it; that service was available in Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Jose Aguayo, an Alhambra resident and member of Grassroots, welcomed the Spanish-speaking audience. He would also facilitate one of the Spanish-language breakout sessions later in the evening. Phoenix Tso, a senior writer at Alhambra Source who has covered the housing story in the Western SGV for many years, spoke of her reporting about residents’ struggles to make ends meet. She spoke about an Op-Ed article in the Source late last year from a community contributor who wrote about an apartment complex developed years ago by a former mayor. His descendants ended up with the complex and recently one of them sold her share to a management company who raised the unit rents considerably, forcing longtime occupants to leave. The other half of the complex still owned by the mayor’s family had no such rent increase. Tso also spoke of the instances of price gouging she’s encountered in her reporting, where monthly fees were raised by at least 50 percent.
Furumoto then introduced two students from Alhambra High School, Sabanan Neuparve and Wuzhi Lou, who narrated a PowerPoint presentation outlining in a very basic and understandable manner various aspects of the housing crisis. Symptoms of the crisis include overcrowding, longer commutes, adult children returning home to live with parents, and many people in the 30-50 age range choosing to leave Southern California for more affordable states.
They also noted that schools suffer because of the crisis. Alhambra’s good schools are a draw to families but those families often can’t afford to stay. They spoke of the heartbreak of students having to leave their friends and homes in Alhambra for more affordable cities to the east. One estimate was that more than 300 students in the Alhambra Unified School District, which also includes Monterey Park, Rosemead and San Gabriel, struggle with homelessness. The loss of student enrollment is a major challenge for the Alhambra Unified School District.
The slide presentation also offered details on how to think about what affordable housing actually means in terms of percentage of income and showed that, according to Southern California Association of Governments figures, the city’s median home prices have increased by 230 percent since 2000, while salaries have risen 45 percent.
After the slide show, there was a short film on Meiyi Peng, an Alhambra resident who faced her own housing crisis when her $1,600 a month rent was raised by nearly $1,000 a month forcing her to move to her son’s home. Her human story helped set up the next part of the evening as the audience broke into small discussion groups by preferred language to talk about issues of concern in housing.
Language diversity aside, many of the participants had the same concerns.
In the Cantonese-language group, for instance, participants wanted a set rental price that didn’t fluctuate to meet market rates. Another raised the question of whether renting was a business or a human need, and how to reconcile those points of view.
Aguayo, who works as a data solutions architect for a bank, helped facilitate and translate one of the Spanish language discussion groups.
He said that two things in the group surprised him: “Residents spoke about the amount of stress that housing pressures place on children. One gentleman described how his kids worry whether they will be homeless. He emphasized that this was true, despite the fact that he and his wife each worked two jobs to make ends meet. Parents also worried about being away from home as much as they do and having to leave their children alone.”
Aguayo also noted that “greed and fear permeates the housing market.”
“Many tenants described living in units that were riddled with infestation and poor maintenance, often resulting in out-of-pocket repairs by tenants. From their perspective, tenants don’t have better living conditions because they pay 20 percent, 30 percent or more from one year to the next. Others live under the fear of eviction if they complain.”
On a more hopeful note, Aguayo said he heard several comments from people with a “general interest in understanding what was being done about the housing crisis by community leaders. They had little hope that things would change soon but wanted to know what they could do.”
Aguayo’s wife, Barbara Aguayo, is a bilingual schools community coordinator for the Alhambra Unified School District. She was also a facilitator and translator at the event. She said she enjoyed seeing residents feel comfortable enough to share their experiences and perspectives on the housing crisis and would like to see more events like this sponsored by the city.
Mayor Andrade-Stadler and Council Member Maza were active participants in these break out sessions, listening to the concerns of participants, commenting and often taking notes. Andrade-Stadler worked the room taking part in several break out groups while Maza was very engaged with the Spanish-language session, offering thoughts and taking in the stories being shared.
After the breakout sessions ended, the audience came together for a brief question and answer session that focused mainly on how to get help on housing. That part of the session was moderated by Eric Sunada, the president of Grassroots Alhambra. Many of the questions involved Section 8 housing vouchers as well as inclusionary housing ordinances and anti-rent gouging measures.
Public support and action were urged for two measures in the state Assembly, AB 1482, an anti-rent gouging bill that would establish an upper limit or cap on allowable rent increases working its way through the California Assembly and another Assembly bill, AB 1481, which is designed to curb unfair evictions while still providing landlords the right to evict tenants for lease violations. Both measures have been endorsed by AAAJ of California and the ACLU of California, as well as the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
As the evening was coming to a close, Mayor Andrade-Stadler and Councilmmber Maza came up to address the gathering. Andrade-Stadler noted that the level of personal engagement she encountered that evening was extremely valuable.
“Although housing data is important, it really doesn’t amount to much until you see the faces of people who are really struggling with housing,“ she said, thanking all for coming. “Spending time with all of you is incredible and actually much more impressive.”
Maza thanked everyone for coming out and observed that he thought the five city council members were now “all on the same page in terms of affordable housing and the fact that something has to be done as soon as possible and that this [issue] had to be addressed.”
He invited people to stay engaged and “come to council meetings to share your stories… I can tell you that this is not something that is going to happen overnight,” but the process has started.
There is a housing item listed on the agenda for the next city council meeting, which will occur Tuesday night instead of Monday due to the Memorial Day holiday.
The evening concluded with drawings for some door prizes and to underscore the inclusive nature of the event each winning number was read aloud in five languages: English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Phoenix Tso contributed reporting.
Full disclosure: Eric Sunada is a member of the Alhambra Source advisory board. Advisory board members have no editorial control or access to stories before publication.