By Monith Ilavarasan
Searching for a way to live where you workUploaded: May 4, 2022
Over the past year of advocating for affordable housing I met Heather (I changed her name at her request for privacy protection). Heather has been a Pleasanton resident and worker for over 20 years. She has also relied on Pleasanton’s limited affordable housing opportunities in times of need. Stories like hers aren’t often shared, and so I would like to do so.
Heather grew up on the east coast and eventually went to college to study early childhood education. One thing led to another and Heather found herself in a relationship with two children in Southern California. When the relationship turned abusive, she immediately picked up her two children and headed north to the Bay Area where she had extended family.
Initially, she didn’t have a single place to stay, so she turned to transitional housing at Tri-Valley Haven & Shepherd’s Gate in Livermore. While there, she managed to find a job as an administrative assistant in San Jose which she then commuted to every single day. After about 5 months of being incredibly persistent, she was finally able to get into Pleasanton Greens, one of the few affordable housing apartments available in the Tri-Valley at the time.
Eventually Pleasanton Greens sold to market rate developers (it is now known as Las Ventanas), and the monthly rent jumped dramatically. Due to this particular change in circumstances, she was granted entry into the Section 8 voucher program.
The Section 8 voucher program is incredibly difficult to get into if one has to wait on a standard waiting list. The current waitlist is thousands of people long and has been closed since 2015. Getting a voucher is also no guarantee of housing. The program guarantees a subsidy for rent, but upon receipt of the voucher you have sixty days to find a landlord who will accept it or you lose it.
Once again, Heather was resolved to do what she could to find housing for herself and her children. With voucher in hand she spent nights and weekends talking to property owner after owner to find one willing to rent to her and her family. She was finally able to find a townhome to rent, with just enough space for three people.
After finally settling into a period of stability she was able to revisit her passion for childhood education. After getting a foot in the door with a local middle school, she was able to land a role in special education. Given that this was her major in college and what she had studied for, it finally felt like things were coming full circle for her.
Even with this rental subsidy, the costs of housing were so high that Heather continued to live mostly paycheck to paycheck. A period of health issues, surgery, and disability leave made it harder to afford living in her home even with subsidized rent.
After this period of struggle and instability Heather started to pursue side projects and weekend gigs in order to build up a financial cushion for emergencies. She still continues these weekend jobs to this day in order to be ready for emergencies.
Heather continued to persevere through these times. She was also able to provide a much needed service to our schools, put her children through a solid education system, and become an active member in her community.
Thanks to her tenacity she secured a stable life for her children who are now thriving as young adults. One has a full time job and lives in Pleasanton to be close with their mother. The other is wrapping up school in the Bay Area with the aim of going into the homebuilding industry.
Heather’s story is pretty remarkable. Her perseverance was one of the biggest reasons she could access the meager housing services that were available.
The reality is that over the years it has become harder and harder to utilize Section 8 or other forms of rental assistance. They primarily rely on federal funding, and have been slashed through Democrat- and Republican-controlled governments alike.
Expanding opportunities to people just like Heather is something we should be proud of as a community. Fundamentally, we can never solve the problem by relying on the expansion of piecemeal programs like the Section 8 voucher. We must work to ensure that we support more permanent affordable housing which has base rents that working people can afford without voucher support.
People like Heather are the backbone of our community and far too many are locked out of ever seeing the fruits of the town they help build.