Paz-Cedillos: Ending housing discrimination, a personal perspective

For the community that the School of Arts and Culture at MHP (SOAC) serves, it is no surprise that the 2019 Santa Clara County Homeless Count shows a significant increase in homelessness.

Over the years, many of our Arts Education Program families have expressed to us the difficulty of remaining in this community.  A year ago, a single mother who had fled a violent relationship and was living in transitional housing approached the SOAC about enrolling her children in our after-school folkloric and Mariachi classes. She viewed La Plaza as a safe, cultural hub for her children who flourished during the time in our programming. Unfortunately, without stable housing, she lost everything.

If the City of San Jose is to solve our homelessness problem, it must look beyond crisis intervention and take a holistic approach that includes championing a strong safety net, policies that protect against discrimination and programs that help provide stable, long-term housing for our most vulnerable community members.

With the proper support, our client’s story could have played out differently. As our families are confronted with the housing crisis, I am reminded of my own story and how lucky my family was to have the proper support.

Twenty years ago, a woman made a life changing decision that put my family on a different trajectory. After spending six months sleeping in our car and in motels, a Section 8 landlord accepted my mother’s voucher. Her decision provided us with stable housing and allowed us to remain in our community where we took advantage of the opportunities that would propel us out of poverty.

Programs like Section 8, a government program that helps tenants reduce the percentage of their earnings used on housing, work, but only if landlords choose to accept the contractually guaranteed rental source.

In August, the San Jose City Council has an opportunity to protect its most vulnerable constituents by adopting a source of income discrimination ordinance. If passed, this ordinance will bring stability to families facing a diminishing safety net, the ever-growing income divide and a scarcity of policies that redress historical wrongs and protect against discrimination.

Landlords will say that it is how the government administers the Section 8 program rather than discrimination against a family that prevents them from accepting the voucher. Based on my personal experience, which is also supported by a 2018 PEW report, I have found that both government bureaucracy and discrimination are reasons why Section 8 applications are not accepted.

Over time, there have been improvements to address some of the bureaucratic technicalities of the Section 8 program. That said, bureaucracy is not without its benefits. Because Section 8 requires minimum upkeep standards and annual inspections, slumlords are deterred from becoming participants.

This summer, the San Jose City Council – and in particular the Latino Caucus – has an opportunity to take a step in the right direction by voting for a source of income discrimination ordinance.

As the executive director of a cultural institution in East San Jose whose mission is to catalyze creativity and empower community, I see how a policy like this can uplift our families. For many people in our community, the SOAC is a creative and cultural home, and if we don’t come to the table to engage in systems change conversations, our people will lose access to cultural gems, like La Plaza, which were built for them.

Jessica Paz-Cedillos is the executive director of the School of Arts and Culture at MHP, a cultural institution in East San Jose that is tasked with activating a local gem (the Mexican Heritage Plaza), and convenes more than 70,000 people a year.

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