The outlook on the availability of affordable housing in San Jose was grim even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Still, Katherine Harasz of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority found a way to get as many people as she could housed.
“Just seeing people enjoy a new park or seeing people have an apartment or just basic housing — it is an incredibly rewarding experience,” Harasz said.
Harasz, who led the housing authority for nine years, retired late last month. The nonprofit is the largest provider of affordable housing assistance in the county. It serves 19,000 low- to middle-income households countywide.
Harasz helped to oversee a team that introduced an online portal for renters to track rents and available housing before the pandemic and a streamlined application processes for prospective tenants, making it easier for applicants to track their applications.
More user-centered measures like these, Harasz said, reduced red tape for applicants to get housing vouchers and made keeping track of housing applications easier for both prospective tenants and staff.
“I often would say, ‘If people who want a tax deduction had to do what people had to do to access a safety net program, no one would want a tax deduction,’” Harasz speculated with a laugh.
The county has also whittled down its decade-plus affordable housing waitlist by ramping up efforts to enroll applicants in the Section 8 program — something SCCHA has been working on since 2006.
Part of that work included one of Harasz’s proudest accomplishments: Saving 117 units at Palo Alto’s Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. In 2017, the SCCHA engineered a $40.4 million buyout of the park, more than four years after the park’s owners announced it would sell the park to a luxury home developer. The move would have displaced nearly 400 residents who were mostly seniors, low income and people of color.
The agreement capped a long legal battle between the owners and the Buena Vista residents, which avoided Palo Alto’s largest displacement since Japanese American residents were forced to leave during the internment of World War II, according to news reports.
“I remember well the day we sat around the table in my office and we talked. After 45 minutes, I think we had pretty well concluded there was just no way in hell to make this work,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian. “And then we had a ‘what-about-this’ moment. Slowly but steadily by virtue of her determination and a great many others, we got to a place that allowed us to preserve intact an important neighborhood and an important community.”
The housing authority has since worked to bring the units up to housing code, bringing in new property managers, after-school programs and more dumpsters.
Harasz’s advocacy has been decades in the making.
Before becoming executive director, Harasz worked for 22 years providing legal advice to local governments, with five of those years spent in Florida. She moved to Silicon Valley in 1999 and worked for the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, and then the county counsel’s office, specializing in public works and real estate cases.
She went to the SCCHA in 2012. There, she learned about the Section 8 program, one of the federal government’s oldest housing assistance voucher initiatives.
“I’m somebody who likes to be challenged and stimulated at work, and I’m not someone who likes doing the same thing over and over again,” Harasz said. “The housing authority really built on the skill sets I developed in a different mission that is a very righteous mission.”
SCCHA is in charge of administering the county’s Section 8 program. The program has more than 17,000 household participants in the region, with more than 80% of households being extremely low-income families, seniors, veterans, persons with disabilities and the formerly unhoused. SCCHA is also in charge of other locally-run programs that include housing opportunities for those groups and first-time homeowners.
Harasz has now moved to Santa Cruz County, where she plans to spend her retirement “wearing out my sandals on the beach” with her family and their dog. SCCHA appointed Preston Prince as Harasz’s successor on Feb. 4. Prince will start his new appointment in May.
Despite moving away from the community she advocated for, Harasz vowed to keep pushing for affordable housing however she can.
“I have some stuff I want to tend to on the homefront here (in Santa Cruz County) and I hope to be here volunteering and doing my thing soon enough,” Harasz said.