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Low-income renters needed info when COVID-19 struck. A community engagement team offered answers.

Low-income renters needed info when COVID-19 struck. A community engagement team offered answers.

Picture of Danielle Fox
Lindsey Holden and Promotora Silvia Santini interview a tenant while canvassing around San Luis Obispo County.
Lindsey Holden and promotora Silvia Santini interview a tenant while canvassing around San Luis Obispo County.
(Photo by Danielle Fox/CHJ)

By the end of March, Lindsey Holden had been interviewing tenants in Central California’s San Luis Obispo County for months.

A reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune and a 2019 Data and Engagement Fellow with the Center for Health Journalism, Holden wanted to understand who was living in substandard housing across the county and what was keeping them there.

In order to earn tenants’ trust, Holden practiced “engaged journalism” and designed a reporting process in partnership with and informed by community members. She connected with community leaders who were already supporting renters living in substandard housing, the Promotores Collaborative of SLO County, a group of Latinx health educators who help connect people to local resources. In collaboration with the promotores and USC’s Center for Health Journalism, The Tribune took reporting to another level through community engagement — hosting a project feedback session with 20 county providers and community leaders, two focus sessions with 17 tenants, and knocking on over 200 doors across North and South County, to hear from tenants living with problems, like mold, pests, broken appliances, and other habitability issues. (As one of its initiatives, the Center for Health Journalism partners with selected reporters and newsrooms to embark on engaged journalism projects, providing in-depth mentoring and funding).

Tenants said that it could take their landlords months to fix problems, if they responded at all. And many shared that they remained silent about such conditions because of their fear that their rent would be raised or they would evicted if they complained.

By partnering with the promotores and other community leaders, Holden was able to build trust and identify renters’ key concerns and questions that she would have missed without engaging the community more broadly throughout the reporting process. That work proved critical when COVID-19 shut down the county in early April. Holden already had largely completed the outreach portion of her project, and had grown strong relationships. That groundwork prompted the promotores to reach out when COVID-19 brought a whole new set of crises to tenants who are low-income and living with substandard housing conditions. Promotores had been receiving many calls from tenants about how to afford their rent and what to do if their landlords were telling them to leave, despite a county eviction moratorium, and they asked Holden if she would help answer tenants’ most pressing questions.

In response, Holden shifted her reporting plans to produce another kind of journalism — a renters’ rights guide that could answer tenants’ questions and provide immediate, actionable information. With this guide, Holden wasn’t just writing about a community challenge, she was reporting with and for community members to answer frequently asked questions.

Working alongside promotores Erica Ruvalcaba-Heredia and Fernanda Lucas, Holden created a renters’ rights guide to how to respond to eviction notices and requirements when it came to paying rent during COVID-19. Using creative techniques online and offline during the shutdown, the Tribune distributed the guide — in English and Spanish — to over 1,000 tenants across the county.

Here’s how we did it:

1. Collaborate with community partners and organizers to identify questions that need answering.

In early April, the promotores were being flooded with calls about paying rent and evictions. Even though there was an eviction moratorium, tenants were calling to say that their landlords were trying to kick them out and that they didn’t know what to do.

Holden and I met with Lucas and Ruvalcaba-Heredia to outline a list of frequently asked questions they’d been hearing. Questions like: What do I do if I can’t pay rent because of coronavirus? What should I do if my landlord is trying to kick me out of my home? Do I have the same rights if I’m renting a room or part of a house?

To answer these questions and more, Lindsey interviewed attorneys at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) and the SLO Legal Assistance Foundation (SLOLAF), two organizations that support low-income tenants through legal representation and educational classes.

2. Fact-check that your resources are in-language and culturally sensitive.

We also made a list of broad categories of resources we wanted to add to the guide. From there, we created a plan to ask whether organizations and community leaders could offer in-language and culturally sensitive support for the English and Spanish versions. We called each organization to check whether they had bilingual staff, and if so, how many hours that staff was working throughout the week, and how long the organization had been offering bilingual support. For example, one organization we called said they had a staff member that takes calls in Spanish one day a week. That’s very limited, so we didn’t list them on our Spanish guide.

If you’re creating a guide that refers people to community resources, it’s important to be transparent about how long it might take an organization to call someone back. For instance, attorneys at CRLA and SLOLAF told us it could take up to two to three business days because of the high volume of calls they receive. We specified that on the guides.

3. Share the information where your community is connecting online and offline.

Since Holden had spent months connecting with tenants before the coronavirus outbreak, we already had an organized spreadsheet with over 100 names of people who asked for project updates and resources. We had tracked how folks wanted to receive updates (via email or text) and their preferred language (English or Spanish). The large majority of folks wanted text updates, so we created JPEG images of the guide and texted them out using Google Voice. We also promoted the guide in local county and mutual aid Facebook groups, and the promotores sent out an eblast to their listserv of 300.

The promotores suggested doing in-person outreach to families waiting in line for school meal pickups and at local food banks. Holden, her reporting partner Cassandra Garibay, and members of the SLO Promotores passed out around 400 guides that way throughout the county. One of the school meal pick-up locations was suggested to us by a staff member at a local family resource center — a source in one of Lindsey’s stories who received the guide via text. In total, we reached over 1,000 community members. That reach would not have been possible without our partnership with the promotores and the suggestions tenants offered as well.

4. Answer follow-up questions.

We knew going into this project that it wouldn’t be enough to just distribute the guide. The guide was meant to invite more questions. Early on, we created a workflow to track and report back answers to additional questions coming in via text and calls. We ended up answering a few dozen more. We texted everyone back to let them know that we were looking into their questions, but that it might take a few days to get back to them, to ensure they felt heard. Holden and Garibay checked in with local legal aid attorneys and other service-providers to get and report back answers via text. They also made sure to reiterate contact information for relevant resources who could better address personal questions.

5. Build off what’s working.

In the month after distributing the guide, the promotores received only a handful of calls about evictions and paying rent. They believe our collaborative guide had served a vital need for information.

Going forward, we know there’s still a lot of work to do. Many renters live in substandard conditions, fearful about asking for help and being evicted. In response, Holden, Lucas, and Ruvalcaba-Heredia recently created another renters’ rights guide on what to do if you’re living with substandard conditions and your landlord is unresponsive. We’ll distribute this guide digitally through SMS texting, Facebook groups, email listserv, and at school meal pickups and food banks. We’re also working with promotora Eustolia Garcia to produce a video explaining the guide in the indigenous language Mixteco, since many tenants Holden connected with speak Mixteco as their first language and Spanish as their second.

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