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The struggle to vote and addressing structural issues in East Palo Alto

The struggle to vote and addressing structural issues in East Palo Alto

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There’s a common refrain frequently heard in Latino households: “I want my kid to have a better life than me.” 

That’s what Antonio Lopez, a candidate for East Palo Alto’s (EPA) City Council, reminded me during an interview in a predominantly Latino and tenant neighborhood known as OTR (for “Over the Ramp”). Despite this, EPA, a 2.5 square mile city where Latinos make up 62.1 percent of its 29,300 residents, remains under-resourced and at risk even though Latinos have migrated to the area since the 1980’s. 

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According to Bay Area Equity Atlas (BAEA), every EPA resident lives in an under-resourced neighborhood, and over 90 percent of low-income homes are at risk of being displaced. Census data shows that the city’s per-capita income between 2014 and 2018 was $24,586, and only 18.8 percent of its residents over the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Compare that to Menlo Park, one of EPA’s bordering cities, where the per-capita income of residents during that same time period was $81,562, and where 70 percent of adults older than 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

With the Nov. 3 elections around the corner, many residents are feeling that they have another opportunity to address the city’s disparities. However, getting people to the polls is a challenge in the United States, and this is no less true for cities like EPA, where voter turnout has been low in recent years. In 2014, only 22 percent of eligible voters actually voted. In 2016, 6,965 city residents casted their votes, composing 52 percent of eligible voters that year, but that number only composes 32 percent of city residents over the age of 18. OTR, one of the more populated areas of EPA, only has about 1,000 registered voters, indicating that Latino communities have even lower voter participation rates. But why do cities like EPA and neighborhoods like OTR, who may benefit the most from voting, struggle to mobilize voters?

Part of the reason may lie in voter disillusionment. Juan Mendez, another candidate for city council, noted that Donald Trump’s election in 2016 had this effect. Even though Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, the electoral college awarded Trump the presidency. “That made our community feel like there’s no point in voting,” said Mendez.

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Other reasons include the language and format of ballots. Miriam Yupanqui, Executive Director of Nuestra Casa, a non-profit organization serving low-income residents, noted that many of the community members Nuestra Casa serves have limited English. Census data also shows that 72.4 percent of EPA residents speak a language other than English at home. The city of EPA provides ballots in Spanish, but Yupanqui, who completed her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley and obtained her master’s at the University of Southern California, noted that “even individuals who have a college degree struggle to understand the different measures and propositions.” 

Economic hardship also deters folk from getting to the polls. “Individuals are really being impacted by the pandemic,” Yupanqui said when asked why individuals might not vote. “They lost jobs, their hours were reduced, they’re really stressed and experiencing anxiety because they don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, or they’re worried about paying the debt they’ve accumulated throughout this process.” Yupanqui was referring to California’s eviction moratorium, which prohibits landlords from evicting tenants that are unable to pay rent between September 1, 2020 and January 31, 2021. 

In EPA, the debt accumulated throughout this period will have to be paid in full by September 1, 2021. Given that 62 percent of all housing units in EPA are rental homes, and given that 66 percent of those renters were already housing burdened in 2015, come September 1, 2021, thousands of EPA renters will be at risk of eviction. EPA’s 9.3 percent unemployment rate makes this possibility more likely, and that rate doesn’t include undocumented folk, so the rate may be worse for EPA’s Latino community. 

Lopez notes that the situation is exacerbated by policies like the Costa-Hawkins Act. That policy allows rent controlled units to revert back to market rates once vacated. According to 2017 data from the Zillow Rent Index, if all rental units in EPA were at market rate, the median rent in the city would be $3,509. This price is unimaginable for most longtime residents like Doroteo, who works two jobs in order to pay rent when the median rent in EPA is currently $1,684. Residents are not just worried about being evicted, but also of being displaced from a city where they have lived most if not all of their lives. 

While the possibility seems distant, the anxiety it produces is felt now, “so they get discouraged,” Yupanqui continued. “This is ‘just a vote,’ they feel, ‘why do I have to take time away from my job to go vote, if I have to deal with all of these real issues.’”

Residents are also required to register before voting. However, finding and filling out the registration form online is extremely complex for someone without computer aptitude, and filling it out in person may be too burdensome for a resident dealing with these financial circumstances.

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The result of all this, Lopez notes, is that “you’re not going to be able to have people advocating for you.” BAEA reports that while Latinos make up 63 percent of the population, they only make up 18 percent of elected officials, whereas 55 percent of elected officials are White even though they only represent 8 percent of EPA’s population.

That’s why many are working to mobilize voters. On Oct. 10, Lopez spent part of the day in OTR helping young residents register to vote. That same day, two longtime residents, Maricela and Karla, went knocking on doors to remind residents to vote, and to hand out flyers in support of Measure V, which would increase taxes paid by hotel renters in order to raise funds for affordable housing. Non-profit organizations are also attempting to mobilize voters in the community. Nuestra Casa has been using their food distribution program to disseminate information to the community on things like where to vote or how to register, and youth leaders at Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) have been canvassing for the local election. 

However, Measure V is the only measure on the ballot this election cycle that addresses affordable housing. That measure is projected to generate $390,000 annually after its second year. While an important amount, that revenue is miniscule given that EPA is a 10 minute drive from both Facebook and Google’s headquarters, companies that have generated a combined revenue of $152.2 billion in 2019 and have the capacity to help cities like EPA develop better resources for its existing community. In 2018, EPA voters approved a similar measure, Measure HH. The measure was projected to raise over $1.67 million for housing and job training in the low-income community. However, according to Palo Alto Online, revenue from that measure “has not been used to establish a concrete job training program or more affordable housing developments.”

It’s for these reasons that residents are also organizing in different ways. Maricela leads an informal tenant association that informs renters on their rights and helps them obtain legal advice. When asked about the potential mass evictions next year, Maricela responded that “if the people organize themselves in opposition that will not happen.” Ofelia Bello, Executive Director of YUCA, has noticed an organic formation of what are effectively pop-up businesses—women selling homemade food, young adults offering tutoring services, or babysitting services. As she puts it, “despite all of the hardship, the ways in which our most vulnerable community members show up for each other is beautiful, and offers hope for a different way of operating.”

Our reporter Daniel Marquez was interviewed about this topic on KALW. To listen to ‘Why East Palo Alto is Struggling to Increase Voter Turnout’ click here.

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