#HousingforAll Labor Council Leadership Academy launches grassroots campaign to tackle the housing crisis

East Salinas residents stage “El Baño” a skit meant to represent some of the challenges people face when living in crowded conditions. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas. 

TALES FROM THE HOUSING FRONT: See all the stories, or tell your own

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

At Closter Park in Salinas, a group of community organizers stage a scene that’s much too common on this side of the Lettuce Curtain.

An actor sits on a make-believe toilet, texting and talking on the phone while his roommates line up outside to get their turn and knock on the imaginary door, their bladders ready to explode. One by one, they explain the precariousness of their situation: a woman needs to use the restroom to be able to leave for work — if she doesn’t arrive on time, she could lose her job. Another woman says she could get dropped from her college classes because she’s already been gone a lot. The third one has diabetes and the frequent trips to the bathroom are frustrated every time one of her nine roommates is taking forever inside.

The actors recently graduated from a leadership academy organized by the Monterey Bay Labor Council, said Alejandro Rayburn. As part of the academy, they picked the topic they wanted to use to organize their neighbors, a pressing issue that would motivate people into action. They chose housing and put together the community forum on July 1.

“This is the first action event,” Rayburn said. “The leadership decided to do this.”

Everyone seems to be feeling the pinch these days of California’s acute housing shortage, a crisis that’s evidenced in the soaring number of homeless people, in nightmare commutes, in skyrocketing rents.

In search of remedies, an initiative will be in the November ballot that seeks to overturn the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which limits rent control measures approved after Feb. 1995, mostly in big cities. If approved, municipalities would be able to strengthen existing local rent control measures or establish new ones. Supporters say the ease with which the signatures were gathered signal the eagerness for solutions to the housing crisis. Opponents say the measure would discourage the building of new housing if it were to be enacted.

According to RentCafe, an app that connects landlords with renters, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Salinas is $1,591, an 8 percent increase compared to the previous year, when the average rent was $1,469. The average one bedroom apartment is going for $1,424, the app says on its website.

In other words, the typical farmworker in Salinas, with an average income of $2,000 a month, is definitely priced out of a one-bedroom apartment. It’s no wonder they have to share apartments or houses with several families — when they can find housing at all.

“The situation we’re living now is very difficult,” said Verónica Torres, in Spanish. Torres is a leadership academy graduate and an actress in the play. “I pay $200 to share a room; before I used to pay nothing because I was cleaning a woman’s house and I was taking care of her children, and she would let me sleep there. Now I live in a small place with two children.”

On the stage, some actors, including Torres, discreetly wiped away their tears. It was a moment that made Dr. John Silva wonder how connected he is with the community, since he didn’t feel as moved as the other actors did. In the play, he took on the role of an apartment manager more concerned with raising the rent than with meeting tenants’ demands to repair the premises, like the tenants demanded.

Much as Luis Valdez began organizing farmworkers through theater half a century ago, Salinas playwright Luis “Xago” Juárez and the troupe Baktun 12 are helping organize the community through “actos” — skits. After each segment, organizers ask the audience to reflect on what they just saw, how the play reflects the reality they’ve encountered, and what they would have done differently. Some are even asked to take on roles on a modified segment, one where tenants are more pro-active and challenge the landlord. In the audience to promote renters’ rights, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance stepped forward to “play” an attorney and confront the apartment manager.

“Baktun12 offers the use of theater as a tool for amplifying resident voice,” Juárez said. “We partnered with the resident leadership academy to produce this event and use theater to support residents in raising their voice about the issues that are impacting them.”

Thus was launched #HousingForAll, a grassroots campaign that will seek solutions to the housing crisis. Organizers say there will be two more forums, one tentatively scheduled for September 22, and one leading up to the November election.

A couple dozen people attended the July 1 forum, including Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter. Whether the forums lead to a rent control measure will be decided by participants at future events, Rayburn said.

“The goal of the next community forums is to set our priorities,” he said.

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.