The Home Front
Latinas lead charge to protect low-income housing in the Salinas General Plan.
Thursday, April 18, 2002
Photo by Jennifer Flowers; Lídia Rodríguez and Aristela Briseño believe land-use planning and social problems are connected.
It''s a muggy Friday evening and four Latino women sit huddled around an oval table at the Salinas office of LandWatch Monterey County. All four work in the fields, putting in 10- or 11-hour days for $50 or $60. They meet here every week with LandWatch''s Lupe García. Today, talk moves from bad housing conditions to gangs to ag-land preservation to the Salinas General Plan.
The women describe an East Salinas apartment they visited earlier in the afternoon: three families living in a one-room apartment (the apartment crawl space has been converted to a bedroom with three queen beds), broken appliances, cement floors and exposed wires. The residents can see a park from their neighborhood, but the kids must climb a chain link fence to get in.
"It affects the children, their education, their health," says Lídia Rodríguez, the president of the group called Líderes Comunitarios de Salinas (Community Leaders of Salinas). "They don''t have any space to do their homework."
Elizabeth Reyes says the overcrowded housing, inadequate after-school programs, and the lack of parks and open space in East Salinas lead too many young people to make the same bad decision: "Do you think the child will grow up with a high self-esteem?" Reyes answers her own question: "No. What do you think he will be? A gangbanger."
The draft Salinas General Plan would re-zone 1,700 acres of agricultural land for new housing. Of that, only 153 acres are proposed for high density housing-the city-centered mix of houses and apartments affordable to low-income residents, which would alleviate the crowding in East Salinas.
In September 2001, García began meeting with school-based migrant parents groups, telling them about the General Plan process, what it is, how it works, and how it will affect their lives. She showed the parents a map, and, with a red marker, drew a boundary line around the land Salinas wants to annex over the next 20 years.
"I said, ''This is where Salinas wants to grow,''" she told the groups of farmworkers and migrant parents. "Has anybody here given the city permission to build new, high-priced housing?"
No hands shot up.
García explained that Salinas City Councilmembers need to hear from their constituents.
"What is this about?," she remembers telling the parent groups. "It affects how much money you pay for rent; it affects learning for your kids; it effects air pollution, traffic and violence; whether or not you have to drive your car to work and childcare.
"The decisions are made by the people you have elected, so they need to hear from you. So you need to make a very intelligent plan and propose it."
From these community meetings, a group of nine residents approached García and said they wanted to learn more about how they could participate in the General Plan Update process.
This group has met weekly since November 2001, first training with García and LandWatch Director Gary Patton and learning about community organizing and land-use policies.
A couple of months ago, the Líderes started collecting signatures asking the city council to include explicit affordable-housing policies in the General Plan. The group expanded, outgrowing the Land Watch offices and moving into the hall of St. Mary''s church.
Aristela Briseño, the group''s secretary, says she and her husband, Antonio, began attending the Líderes meetings at the church.
"Like my husband, I''m involved in the social justice program with the Catholic Church," she explains. "Many Hispanics don''t know what a General Plan is, so we''re trying to educate them about why it is important. We want Hispanics to come together and get involved to work for better housing conditions, a better humanity, so the General Plan is truly a benefit to the community."
On Feb. 5, the group attended the Salinas Planning Commission and City Council joint session to discuss the General Plan, and pointed out that the current draft plan calls for huge numbers of high-cost, low-density houses.
"The people of East Salinas cannot afford the large, expensive houses built on low-density lots," Lídia Rodríguez told the council members and planning commissioners. "And we don''t need any lectures about how poorly designed high-density neighborhoods can be miserable places to live. We live in these poorly designed high-density neighborhoods right now. We want the new General Plan to have strongly worded policies that require well-planned communities."
Today the original nine members meet weekly with García at LandWatch, but the general meetings continue to draw upwards of 150 residents.
At recent weekly meetings, the small group pours over the General Plan, translated from English to Spanish, and debate each of its proposed policies, offering suggestions of their own.
They have built four of these ideas into their petition, which they intend to present to the Salinas City Council when they''ve collected 10,000 signatures. (Thus far, they''ve collected about 2,500.) At that time, they also want to give the council an alternate general plan, with objectives and policies and maps drafted by the Líderes.
"When residential housing is built on lands annexed to the City, at least 50 percent of all the new housing units constructed shall be sold or rented to persons or families with low or very low incomes, and shall be permanently protected for sale or rental to persons or families with low or very low incomes," reads one section of the petition. It also asks that first right to rent or purchase be given to residents who either work or live in Salinas.
"They are leaving us behind," says Silvia Huerta. "Our town is no longer our own."
The group''s second objective is to ensure that the General Plan conserves agricultural land by advocating for city-centered, more high-density housing.
"They want to pave over our fields, so we won''t have fields to work in, and we''re not going to be able to afford the homes they want to build because they will be too expensive," Rodríguez says. "We''re not going to have anything."
Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero recently met with members of the Líderes. She says the well-organized group presents a "tremendous opportunity" to push for affordable housing county-wide, for tourism-industry workers, farmworkers, teachers, government employees and the military.
"This lack of attention to essential-worker housing has created this huge need and the Líderes have come in and said ''we need to fill this need,''" Caballero says. "And its not just a Salinas problem-when you look at the jobs to housing ration, Salinas is housing-rich. It''s a problem the community, Monterey County, needs to solve to gether."
Rodríguez says some city officials have told her that the Líderes demand that 50 percent of all new housing be designated for low or very low income Salinas residents isn''t realistic.
"I want to change the reality," Rodríguez says.