Building Hope with the Community
Growing from a neighborhood effort to keep six single-family homes from being demolished to make way for a garment factory, the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation (ECHC) in Los Angeles has worked to reverse the trend of disinvestment that has marked so many of the city’s neighborhoods. ECHC was founded in 1989 by Sister Diane Donoghue, a long-time resident of the organization’s Maple-Adams/Hoover-Adams neighborhood. Since then, ECHC has developed affordable housing for at least 500 residents and has provided a range of community services for low-income families. ECHC also works to foster community-based economic development that, unlike the circumstances that sparked its origin, seeks to enhance the neighborhood’s physical and social environment.
Reflecting its community-based approach to economic development, ECHC is designing a Mercado, or public market, to enable low-income residents to start their own businesses within a supportive infrastructure. Under the direction of ECHC Assistant Director Melanie Stephens, the mercado will create 100 to 150 jobs with step-up opportunities for vendors to expand their range of products, increase the size of their stalls, and learn new skills that may lead to other enterprises. In a neighborhood full of fast-food chains, the Mercado will also offer the opportunity for local residents to enjoy good homemade meals in welcoming surroundings. Local entrepreneurs are actively involved in helping ECHC design the Mercado and are assisting in intensive business training.
ECHC’s development efforts also include five properties, both rehabilitated and newly constructed, that provide rental housing for low-income families. One property, Villa Esperanza, encompasses a community center and child care center along with 33 three- and four-bedroom family apartments. At the Villa Esperanza Community Center and Budlong Apartments, ECHC offers on-site educational and recreational programs for youth and adults, including literacy and English as a Second Language classes, arts and theater classes, and computer training. ECHC has also financed and built two child care centers, administered by the University of Southern California (USC), that provide Head Start schooling for 80 low-income toddlers.
Another important part of ECHC’s work is its involvement in health care issues and its Community Health Promoters Program, now three years old. The first component of the program enrolls 30 bilingual residents in a five-month training course covering a wide range of health issues encountered in the neighborhood. Local health care agencies and professionals participate in the training. Trainees receive a small stipend for the training, after which they begin six month internships with local medical institutions. Finally, the community health promoters take their training “onto the streets” to gather information on residents’ medical histories and health concerns and determine two or three areas of health promotion on which to focus. The program’s goal is to provide opportunities for low-income residents to learn about, practice, and teach preventative health measures and pursue further education and employment in the health field.
Along with its lengthy list of accomplishments in housing, economic, and program development, ECHC has made the foray into policy issues that many CDCs avoid. A key example of this is ECHC’s participation in last year’s campaign for a Los Angeles Living Wage Ordinance. [See Shelterforce #97] ECHC’s involvement in the living wage issue is guided by the priorities of community residents, many of whom hold part-time and seasonal jobs in the garment industry and with USC, says Alice Salinas, housing-policy director for ECHC. ECHC joined the living wage campaign’s steering committee and worked to connect the campaign to other community development issues and area CDCs. The organization encouraged residents to participate in the campaign, by, for example, bringing a group of eighth grade students to visit city hall as part of the students’ exploration of jobs and wage issues.
The concerns of community residents also help inform ECHC’s involvement in the housing policy arena. ECHC has joined the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing and has sought to influence a number of city, state, and federal housing policy issues. Tying into the ECHC health promoters program, Community Health Program Director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim has served on a number of health policy councils in the Los Angeles area, and residents enrolled in the program learn about health policy issues, such as how to navigate California’s managed care system.
All this work fits into ECHC’s vision of a community where “information is shared and distributed and the learning process leads to political power.” ECHC seeks to make that vision real through partnerships with churches, schools, block clubs, and other community institutions. “In all or our actions,” reads the organization’s mission statement, “Esperanza strives always to build hope with the community.”
For more information, contact ECHC, 2337 South Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90007; 213-748-9630.