by Susan Goracke
“How can I get my landlord to remove the disgusting mold growing in our apartment?”
“We’ve asked our landlord to fix the broken stairs in our building, but nothing ever happens. What can we do to get his attention?”
These are among the many questions that Alder Elementary School parents were asking during four Renters Rights workshops held at this Rockwood neighborhood school in East Portland last spring.
At the May 30 workshop, about a dozen Latino families shared a pizza dinner and learned about their responsibilities and rights as renters. They discussed Fair Housing issues and learned about discrimination based on color, country of origin or family status. To facilitate understanding, workshop presenters spoke to them in their native Spanish. Parents could concentrate during the PowerPoint presentation because their children were being cared for in another room.
“Many of these vulnerable Latino families are living in substandard housing built with substandard materials,” says Tiffiny Hager, “I Have a Dream” Oregon’s Mobility Reduction Resource Coordinator, who set up the workshops and met with families beforehand to encourage them to attend. “They feel they are at the mercy of their landlords, who, in many cases, aren’t providing safe, livable conditions and often aren’t fixing problems such as mold.”
Jensi Albright, who helped coordinate Alder’s four Renters Rights workshops, is the Community Engagement Director for Community Alliance of Tenants, a Portland nonprofit agency. She believes Hager’s organizing and outreach skills were important to the workshops’ success.
“It’s a big challenge to get attendance from these parents, who have to juggle their work schedules and multiple children,” Albright points out. “Having Tiffiny establish relationships of trust with these families first, made a difference in having so many parents show up at the workshops.”
Renters workshops are just one of a number of projects Hager juggles in her position with “I Have a Dream” Oregon, a nonprofit agency that gives students from disadvantaged neighborhoods the skills and motivation to both graduate from high school and pursue further education at a college or technical school.
A two-year, $120,000 grant from Vibrant Village Foundation is funding Hager’s position through mid-2014. The foundation also provides Hager with office space in its Northeast Alberta Street location. Her job is to help keep families from moving out of Alder’s district so that students can continue to benefit from “I Have a Dream’s” Dreamer School program at Alder.
“Our research on why Alder families leave the Alder catchment area was very clear. At least 80 percent of Alder families left for what we labeled ‘undesired’ reasons,” explains “I Have a Dream” Executive Director Mark Langseth. “These reasons include rent increases, landlord-tenant issues, and several types of family changes and challenges.”
Langseth sees Hager’s position as crucial to helping provide family stability in the Alder area.
As a coordinator, Hager brings together resources from local agencies to help prevent vulnerable families from moving away. “Tiffiny and other staff have spent significant time this year creating partnerships between Alder families and neighborhood leaders, including the new Rockwood Community Development Corporation, which has created tremendous neighborhood revitalization energy in less than a year of its founding,” Langseth adds.
Using some funds from Vibrant Village Foundation’s grant, Hager helps coordinate the Alder Housing Assistance Program, a partnership with Home Forward (formerly the Housing Authority of Portland), Human Solutions (which provides family advocates and case management), the Reynolds School District and Multnomah County. That program has provided 70 families with targeted housing stability assistance, which allowed them to avoid eviction and remain in Alder’s catchment area.
Once Alder parents graduate from housing assistance, they are eligible to be mentored by a group of neighborhood volunteers, called navigators, who are trained by the Rockwood CDC. Navigators help Alder parents make connections to social services that offer housing, job and entrepreneurship opportunities.
These are the kinds of connections that will help them reverse the cycle of poverty,” Hager says.
In addition to making connections, Hager helps families integrate into the school system. For example, she helped design an ESL (English as a second language) program for families, with explanations of how to enroll children in school and what a parent-teacher conference is.
“We have many Pacific Islander families, and they don’t have a history of coming into their children’s schools, due to their cultural norms,” she explains. “We’re encouraging them to get involved in their children’s education.”
Hager also collaborates with two other “I Have a Dream” Portland employees —Shyvonne Williams, the Alder Dreamer School Manager, and Vanessa Brooks, the Middle School Dreamer Program Manager — to help students achieve their greatest potential in school, college and career. They partner with more than 60 organizations to support students and to help create stable environments so students can thrive at school, at home and in the community.
Hager’s job presents a multitude of challenges. For one thing, 32 different languages are spoken within the Alder community. Also, limited access to public transportation within the Rockwood neighborhood complicates Hager’s ability to refer families without a car to visit government or social service agencies located miles away.
In May, the Reynolds School District redrew the Alder boundaries, which reassigned some Alder students to other schools. This means they will lose their access to sought-after “I Have a Dream” Oregon services at Alder, including housing assistance, mentoring, tutoring and college visits.
But if anyone is up for these challenges, it’s Hager, a Portland native and mother of two. She has more than 15 years of experience coordinating and implementing programs in low-income schools to stabilize families and support student success. She worked for 10 years as a family intervention specialist for Multnomah County, and recently spent a year in Honduras, where she helped nonprofit organizations support educational opportunities.
Although Hager’s current 30-hour-a-week position is funded for just one more year, she is determined to ensure that programs such as the Renters Rights workshops that she helped set up at Alder become self-sustaining after she leaves.
Mark Langseth, CEO at “I Have a Dream” Oregon adds, “All of this tremendous progress toward increasing family stability and breaking the cycle of poverty has been enabled by Vibrant Village Foundation’s forward-thinking grant aimed at decreasing the high rate of undesired mobility among Alder families.”