April 11, 2008

Fighting for Healthy Housing for all City Heights Residents

By Jessica Nicholas

Angelica Garcia (name has been changed ) stood calmly before a recent City Council committee meeting, telling them her personal story about her life and family.

When she immigrated to the US from Mexico six years ago, her new housing was not what you would expect to find in America. “I had to live in a housing unit that was in very deplorable conditions. We had many problems, including lead, humidity, mold, and cockroaches.”

It was under these conditions that she links her daughter’s development of Asthma.

Unfortunately, her story is not uncommon for the residents of City Heights.

Proyecto Casas Saludables (Healthy Homes Project), a part of the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, has been working for three years to address the issues surrounding healthy housing in City Heights.

Seeing just a few pictures of the homes that were assessed during the project makes it clear that stories like Garcias are too common.

One major problem is that homes, like Garcias’, have high amounts of mold and cockroaches. Proyecto Casas Saludables found in the 140 homes that they assessed that 79% had cockroaches, 64% had mold, and 31% reported having children with asthma.

According to Genoveva Aguilar, the program coordinator for Proyecto Casas Saludables, these are not problems because residents are not clean enough, but structural problems within their homes. Leaky pipes and other problems with home maintenance lead to situations where cockroaches and mold grow regardless of how much a resident cleans.

Problems like mold and cockroaches can cause lung problems, like Asthma.

Asthma is a common problem among children living in City Heights. In fact, the estimates are that 15-20 percent of children living in City Heights have asthma. That is above the national average of 11 percent.

There is a lot of fear and distrust, especially in the Latino community, toward landlords and other city officials. Many residents do not know their rights as tenants and are afraid to voice their concerns to the local government officials.

Aguilar explains that one of their project’s key strengths is the work of the community “promatoras.” Promatoras are community health workers who speak the language of the residents are trusted by the community, and enable the project to reach more families. Through them, Proyecto Casas Saludables gains access to more homes because residents are comfortable allowing the promatoras inside to do assessments and ask questions.

In addition to home assessments, workshops are conducted to educate people about their rights as tenants and the health issues surrounding having mold and cockroaches in their homes.

As a result of the project, many have learned about their rights as tenants to have a safe and healthy home and have taken action against their landlords to have necessary home repairs made.

For some, like Garcia, conditions have greatly improved. Today, she can happily report that, “all the necessary repairs were made and my daughter’s health is improving. Today we have a healthy home.”

At a recent City Council Land Use and Housing Committee meeting, Proyecto Casas Saludables made a presentation about the project and many residents were able to share their experiences. The city officials were receptive to the comments and open to making changes, however it will take time to see how much policy change can be made.

Jessica Nicholas is an intern with the UC San Diego Comprehensive Research Center in Health Disparities (CRCHD) and is double majoring in Biology and International Studies at UCSD. The CRCHD is a partnership of organizations focusing on community minority health and health disparities research.

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