Community Profiles: Redefining Leadership for Stronger Communities
During the COVID-19 pandemic, UnidosUS has compiled Affiliate stories that uplift our community’s resiliency and power that bring the Latino community forward. With the help of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, UnidosUS is launching the series “Community Profiles: Redefining Leadership for Stronger Communities,” as a commitment to highlight leaders’ support systems, their collective strengths, and collaborative efforts that shape a more accurate narrative of Latinos as positive contributors to the United States and vital to the nation’s health and well-being. This is the second blog in our series.
Meet Valorie Garcia, a housing counselor with UnidosUS Affiliate Neighborhood Housing Services of San Antonio, and Gabriela Luna, a housing counselor with UnidosUS Affiliate Tejano Center for Community Concerns. Both Valorie and Gabriela are driven to help their communities achieve the dream of homeownership. With deep respect and understanding for the community that they serve, Valorie and Gabriela work tirelessly to help Latinos build household wealth.
By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist and Selene Tituaña Jurado, Program Manager Health, UnidosUS
After the end of the Great Recession where Latinos lost 66% of their household wealth, many Latinos entered the rental market, unable to afford to buy their own homes. Recovery has been slow and uneven since then for Latinos in the housing market, but that does not mean that UnidosUS and its Affiliate leaders—our housing counselors—are any less committed to ensuring that our community has access to the tools they need to have the opportunity to become homeowners. In fact, since 1997, UnidosUS and its Affiliate network of housing counselors have helped more than 590,000 families with their housing counseling needs—ranging from assistance with the homebuying process to help with their current mortgage to financial, budgeting, and money-management advice.
TAKING STEPS TOWARD MAKING A GREATER IMPACT
Valorie Garcia has worked as a housing counselor with UnidosUS Affiliate Neighborhood Housing Services of San Antonio for the past four years. Before becoming a housing counselor, Valorie worked in car sales for about 12 years, and although she enjoyed the customer satisfaction side of things of her job, she decided to pursuit a new and different challenge that would create a bigger and more meaningful impact for her community.
Valorie realized that her previous experience in sales meant she had the skills to become and succeed as a housing counselor at Neighborhood Housing Services of San Antonio but most importantly, as a community member herself, Valorie understood people’s stories, where they come from, who they are, and their hopes and dreams. “That makes all the difference to me and why I continue doing this work on behalf of my community,” Valorie says.
While Valorie was initially intimidated by the test that she had to take in order to become a Housing Urban Development (HUD)-certified housing counselor, she passed the exam on her first try and became the first HUD-certified housing counselor in San Antonio. Since becoming certified, Valorie provides her clients with accessible education about mortgages, loans, insurance, and guidance on contracts they are signing. “Seeing just how empowered and confident my clients grow to be by simply understanding what seems like an overwhelming process is rewarding,” Valorie adds.
Valorie serves a community that is predominantly Latino with low- or moderate-income. Even though there is a growing number of first-generation working-class Latino Americans and Mexican Americans living in the community, she has found that often they believe that buying a home is far from their reality.
Valorie plays a key role in working one-on-one and informing families about the options, responsibilities, and opportunities of home ownership. “I’m educating my community about the initial steps and their financial position—their income, savings, and credit. It is incredibly satisfying to see and feel the sense of pride, achievement and hope for the future,” Valorie says.
COVID-19 POSES CHALLENGES
On March 23, 2020, Neighborhood Housing Services and Homeownership Center, where Valorie and her team provide housing counseling to their community, closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It felt challenging and almost impossible to continue my work because I know that it all revolves around building trusting and authentic relationships with the community and families,” Valorie explains.
But Valorie was determined to make the housing counseling experience work online for her community. She had to learn how to use technology on how to launch a virtual course. Valorie soon reached out to trusted colleagues with similar values in her professional network and asked them to collaborate with her on creating a comprehensive, virtual course that would still transmit the same level of trust and authenticity that an in-person course does.
“My colleagues developed sections/expertise for the virtual online course and collaborated with me and the team I pulled together so that it all came together,” Valorie explains. It was important for Valorie to rely on colleagues that she trusted and who understood the leadership that it takes to work collaboratively in the interest of others and not themselves.
Valorie also described how her faith, as well as guidance from her mother and grandmother, helps to continuously inspire her and give her purpose in her role as a housing counselor, especially during difficult times.
“Their love, support, and examples give me strength and peace. They always taught me that people come first—to see them as human beings first,” Valorie says.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Gabriela Luna has been a housing counselor for the past 15 years with UnidosUS Affiliate Tejano Center for Community Concerns (TCCC) in Houston, Texas. She was inspired to become a housing counselor after she herself went through TCCC’s housing counseling program. “It really came down to my own first-time home buying experience and the assistance and counseling I received from TCCC. I learned so much as a TCCC client. That process helped me feel empowered,” Gabriela explains.
When the TCCC housing counselor opportunity became available, Gabriela felt confident and ready to take on the role and the responsibilities of this position. Gabriela had a deep understanding of the community’s needs, doubts, fear, and hopes that came with the process of buying a home—which is key to her success as a housing counselor. Gabriela works with a lot of low-income residents, many of whom speak limited English. While many are Latino, Gabriela and TCCC both work with Black, white, and Asian residents as well. Many of the families are also mixed status or have DACA.
“The need is sometimes greater and more complicated among mixed status families and/or DACA residents especially when you consider that many of them are not eligible for federal housing assistance or federal lending programs. The few lending programs that might be available to them have very unfavorable terms,” Gabriela explains.
Like Valorie, Gabriela has encountered many immigrants and first-generation Latinos who believe that they will never be able to buy their own home and struggle with language barriers as they learn about all of the financial components that go into buying a home.
Unfortunately, language barriers and difficulty navigating our complex financial system are not the only challenges that Gabriela’s clients have experienced.
“Over the past four years, a significant part of my work and that of my peers has been related to the series of natural disasters that directly affected Houston and surrounding areas. The more destructive and well-known natural disasters include – Hurricane Laura in 2020; Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and the recent “Deep Freeze in February 2021,” Gabriela explains.
In the case of the Deep Freeze in early 2021, Gabriela and her colleagues at TCCC were involved in advocating and helping their clients negotiate with contractors and get repairs done on their homes. The impact created by natural disasters has become a constant part of Gabriela’s work and has required a collective effort, support, and advocacy because the need has been urgent and far greater for TCCC clients.
One example of someone that Gabriela was able to assist in her community was Ms. Duffy, a 90-year-old resident whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“She was one of thousands of community residents whose homes completely flooded afterwards. Soon after the flooding subsided, her son caught a serious septic infection from visiting her home to look at and assess the damage. He died not long after that. Shortly after his passing, Ms. Duffy became the victim of fraud soon after home repairs began on that same house,” Gabriela says.
Throughout this process, Gabriela remained highly involved in her case, helping her locate temporary housing and helping her access grant funding to pay for the $250 a week that it cost. “All in all, it took more than two years to repair her home to the point where it was safe for her to move back in. On her own, she had no options for where to live besides a state-run institution,” Gabriela explains.
Like Valorie, Gabriela also spoke about how close-knit the community is, describing how they all came together in the wake of these devastating natural disasters to help each other out. “Whether it’s an individual person, a family, or another community-based organization, everybody has always been available to lend a helping hand one way or another,” Gabriela shares.
COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP GOES BEYOND A SKILL SET
Both Valorie and Gabriela exemplify purpose-drive leadership—the commitment and practice of prioritizing people and collective purpose first. Valorie is driven by her family and her community which helps her do the work she does as a housing counselor, while Gabriela is deeply inspired by her personal experience as a client of TCCC to become a first-time home buyer. Her empathy and passion to serve her community stems from this personal experience.
This clarity of purpose and focus that both Valorie and Gabriela has allowed them to understand and empathize with the communities they serve. They do not take their success as housing counselors for granted and are highly aware that this work cannot be done alone but with a team that is laser-focused on the mission of serving the community and a team who has a lot of passion in achieving this goal.
Both Valorie and Gabriela see their success as a product of hard work, innovation, but most importantly a product of collective effort. They recognize being a housing counselor takes a good heart and care for others as they build trusting and personal relationships with the community and are committed to helping Latinos reach their homeownership goals.