A line of cars waited to turn into Santa Ana High School one January morning where a sign advertised free COVID-19 tests in Spanish. It stretched back half-a-mile, past homes in the surrounding working-class neighborhoods that were still adorned with Christmas decorations, including Catholic shrines to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Latino Health Access, a Santa Ana-based nonprofit, helped transform Orange County’s oldest high school into an orderly testing site amid the coronavirus pandemic’s winter surge.
At the time, the ZIP code around the campus held a test positivity rate of 28%, well above the county’s average of 19.5%.
Elsewhere in the city, streets, neighborhoods and businesses are dotted with bilingual “Protect Santa Ana” signs. The message urges residents to practice the basics of coronavirus prevention: face coverings, hand washing and social distancing. It’s part of a joint campaign by the city, the Santa Ana Unified School District, Latino Health Access and the OC Health Care Agency that began in early December.
But Santa Ana, a majority Mexican city with a sizable immigrant population, hasn’t always been on the same page politically where it concerns public policy and the well-being of its residents.
“Before COVID, the situation with many of our communities was one in which affordable housing was minimal, where people lived in crowded settings,” says Dr. América Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access. “What COVID did, in that regard, was to shine a light on these disparities.”
In advocating for more affordable housing, Santa Ana activists have highlighted the health impacts of overcrowding, such as poorer mental health and greater exposure to respiratory illnesses. The same is true of connecting Santa Ana’s status as a park-poor city to its high rates of obesity among adults (34.5%) as well as overweight teens (44.4.%) and children (12.7%), cited in UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s 2016 survey.
The Community Lands Coalition sees part of the solution in transforming dozens of rubble-strewn, city-owned plots into affordable housing, green space and micro-farms. For activists, the aim isn't just to address socio-economic inequalities through community land trusts but to promote health equity in working-class neighborhoods while doing so.
“This is something unique to Santa Ana,” says Irlanda Martinez, a board member with Thrive Santa Ana, a community land trust nonprofit. “Latinos, specifically, drive so much of that conversation.” Martinez has also been recently appointed to the city's housing commission by councilwoman Jessie Lopez.
That’s due, in part, to central Santa Ana having been one of 14 sites chosen for the California Endowment’s “Building Healthy Communities” initiative in 2009. Latino Health Access was selected to lead a planning process that envisioned a much different 2020 where central Santa Ana was to be a “healthy, safe and vital community.”
Only now, the city is OC’s epicenter of infection, spurring a much more urgent conversation about health equity and how best to address it.
“I am a chronic optimist,” says Bracho. “Now, we’re talking about equity and the disproportionate impact that COVID has in communities of color. That gives me hope.”
A practicing physician in Venezuela, Bracho brought with her a successful model based on community health workers when immigrating to the United States and founding Latino Health Access in 1993. The nonprofit is powered by such “promotores” (promoters), both volunteer and staff, who’ve knocked on doors in neighborhoods to educate neighbors about medical conditions and services available to them.
Entrenched in a pandemic, promotores are now helping distribute coronavirus educational materials, hosting weekly food banks and running testing sites. Latino Health Access has swelled its ranks along the way. At the beginning of the public health crisis, the nonprofit counted a staff of 60; now, it totals more than 200 workers and continues to grow.
And its work has never been so indispensable. According to the OC Health Care Agency, Latinos comprise 44% of coronavirus cases, despite being 35% of the population. They also make up 41% of the deaths.
Santa Ana emerged as an early pandemic hotspot by late June as the agency began analyzing infection rates in various low-income ZIP codes.
“Our staff live in those same ZIP codes,” says Bracho. “We were seeing people losing their jobs, going hungry and ultimately dying of COVID.”
What promotores witnessed early on didn’t immediately inform media reports prior to the summer surge, largely due to county data being aggregated when reported publicly. Bracho fought hard to disaggregate the data. Doing so allowed Latino Health Access to identify hotspots and mobilize resources to address them.
By July, the coordinated response in tandem with various community partners blanketed the city with testing sites, starting with communities most in need. But even as Bracho tried to get a handle on the pandemic, she knew that such sites had to be set up in an equitable manner. Schools became invaluable to the effort and allowed nearby residents access within walking distance.
With coronavirus test positivity rates nearing 30% during the summer surge, health experts and policymakers searched for explanations. Many Santa Ana residents worked essential jobs and lived in densely populated neighborhoods. Overcrowded living conditions within them became a cause for concern. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Santa Ana residents have more people per household (4.28) than the county average (3.01).
“The majority of our neighbors are very responsible,” says Bracho. "But some people go back to a home where only two people live, and many of our neighbors go back to a home where ten people live. The behaviors are the same, but the living conditions are different.”
Renters form the majority of Santa Ana residents, 56% by the American Community Survey’s tally in 2016, and they're becoming increasingly rent-burdened. An effort by Tenants United Santa Ana to put a rent control measure on the ballot last year fell well short of gaining the signatures needed. Volunteers cited the challenges posed by the pandemic before calling it quits. Tenants United urged the Santa Ana city council to put the issue before voters but lacked sufficient support behind the dais.
Struggling to keep steady housing, tenants are often forced to choose between health insurance and making rent. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 16.9% of Santa Ana residents were uninsured before the pandemic, more than twice the county rate. And residents live in crowded conditions as a way to lessen the burden of rent.
Only now, that means of survival may also be driving coronavirus infections.
Mid-March last year, councilmembers passed an eviction moratorium to help keep residents affected by the pandemic in their homes. But in the name of spurring economic development amid a downturn, they also revisited the city’s Housing Opportunity Ordinance in August.
According to the OC Health Care Agency, Latinos comprise 44% of coronavirus cases, despite being 35% of the population. They also make up 41% of the deaths.
Under the law, developers could bypass dedicating a percentage of a housing project’s units to low-income renters by paying “in lieu” fees into an affordable housing fund. By a 5-2 vote, councilmembers drew down the ordinance’s $15 per square foot fee developers need to pay into the affordable housing fund to just $5 per square foot. The policy shift also exempted a number of new projects from the law altogether.
“That vote perfectly encapsulates the politics of business interests over public health — and it’s the politics that have dominated Santa Ana for many years now,” says newly elected councilwoman Lopez, a Latino Health Access employee who ran on strengthening the ordinance. “To me and many other people, it cemented the vision the council had for the city, a vision that wasn’t inclusive of all working families, of our essential workers.”
A mixed-use development downtown followed and became another pitched battle over affordable housing. The council approved developer Mike Harrah’s “3rd and Broadway” project that will transform a city-owned parking garage into a 10-story hotel and 16-story apartment complex. Of the proposed 171 units, only 19 will be available to low-income renters, further fueling charges of downtown gentrification.
“I believe it's going to change the downtown for the better,” said Miguel Pulido, Santa Ana’s mayor at the time, during a November council meeting. “This is going to be an iconic project within Orange County. If I could do this 20 times over, I would.”
Lopez, then a councilwoman-elect, would’ve preferred more community outreach in tandem with the school district. One trustee agrees.
“The district doesn’t have a direct role in these policies, but it does have a stake in them,” says Carolyn Torres, Vice President of the Santa Ana Unified school board. “The district loses students every year. There’s a variety of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that people are moving out of Santa Ana because housing is so expensive.”
The Community Lands Coalition also criticized the move, especially as the city conveyed the land to Harrah for free and will cover the $13 million cost to demolish the site. The plot, it argued, would’ve been better served to address the need for more affordable housing and green space.
“We are building,” says Lopez, “but who are we building for?”
To me and many other people, it cemented the vision the council had for the city, a vision that wasn’t inclusive of all working families, of our essential workers.Jessie Lopez
At the onset of the pandemic, Latino Health Access turned Corazones Verdes Park, a half-acre of green space, into a distribution site for fresh produce and food. When the nonprofit took the lead in advocating for the park founded in 2013, it had other objectives in mind, namely to make a dent in Santa Ana’s park-poor status. “It impacts the ability to engage in prevention,” says Bracho. “It impacts the way you can manage a disease like diabetes where you need to walk outside.”
According to a UCLA Center for Health Policy Research survey in 2016, adult obesity in Santa Ana is estimated at 34.5%, the county's highest rate. The city's share of diabetics, at 11.7%, is second only to the senior community of Laguna Woods. The Center for Disease Control cautions that both conditions increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
The survey also found that only 10.6% of Santa Ana youth between the ages of 5-17 got at least an hour of physical activity a week, a mark below the county average.
Corazones Verdes gave the nearby Lacy neighborhood, where overcrowding is common, a much-needed place for family recreation.
But the park wasn’t an easy political victory.
“Every accomplishment in the past has been through a struggle that was, to some extent, unnecessary,” says Bracho. "It shouldn't have been that complicated to create a half-acre park, and we fought 11 years for it."
The Trust for Public Land’s “ParkScore Index” for 2020 ranked Santa Ana 85th out of the nation’s top 100 largest cities. It also noted that just 4% of Santa Ana’s land is being used for parks and recreation.
The biggest opportunity to boost green space in Santa Ana is out of the city council’s hands.
Willowick Golf Course, a verdant 102-acre oasis owned by Garden Grove, has been eyed for redevelopment. A coalition of activists formed Rise Up! Willowick and advocated for the golf course being converted into mostly open space under California’s Surplus Land Act. The group sued Santa Ana and Garden Grove, alleging that requests for proposals issued in April 2019 didn't prioritize considerations for affordable housing and open space as required by the law.
In December 2020, Garden Grove city council voted to begin negotiations with three interested groups, including the Trust for Public Lands.
Whatever Willowick’s fate, another long-pondered possibility comes in the form of partnerships with the school district. Latino Health Access teamed with Santa Ana Unified in 2012 to open the grounds of Roosevelt Elementary to serve a park-poor neighborhood on weekends.
Torres favors more joint-use agreements.
"A lot of folks don't think of school districts as landowners, but our district owns a lot of land,” she says. “I’m supportive of finding a way that we can have our schools and fields accessible to youth in a way that makes sense. We have the most access to green space in the city.”
Not far from Santa Ana High School, a parcel of land once piled with cement chips became the sight of a small victory last year for community land trust activists. The city approved an agreement with Thrive Santa Ana in May to transform it into a micro-farm. It came after three years of negotiations and five community turnouts at council meetings.
“The micro-farm is pretty small in comparison to the projects that Thrive eventually wants to do,” says Martinez. “It’s a project for us to prove ourselves so that in the future we can develop actual housing.”
Like Latino Health Access with Corazones Verdes, Thrive sought to have the land donated but settled on a lease agreement. But it’s hoped that such small seedlings will help a healthier Santa Ana blossom into being one day. Early optimism also surrounds the outcome of local elections in November that seated Vicente Sarmiento, Santa Ana’s first new mayor in 26 years, and a new generation of leaders more reflective of the city’s youth.
A test arrived in December with a proposal by Northgate Market to build 169 market-rate apartment units on the site of its downtown grocery store. With the Housing Opportunity Ordinance modified, the project wasn’t subject to inclusionary housing requirements. Several organizations and residents opposed its approval, with some citing the pandemic and overcrowding.
Sarmiento, who ran, in part, on the need for more affordable housing, recused himself as his family owns property in the downtown area.
That cleared the way for a slim majority to approve the project.
“There’s a need for affordable housing to be built,” said David Peñaloza, a councilman who voted in favor of Northgate, during the meeting. “We’ve approved a lot of affordable housing and exceed any other city in the county. We need to find proper balance to have housing across the board of all levels of income. That’s what you should do to have a good mix of people.”
An opportunity for the council to revisit the Housing Opportunity Ordinance arrives later this year, as does a chance for Santa Ana to avoid its pandemic past.
During the “Spanish” flu in 1918, the city was home to a white majority. Mexican residents comprised a minority but helped form an essential workforce in the citrus industry. When influenza cases surged in that fall, Dr. J.I. Clark, the city’s health officer, claimed that most of the ill were Mexicans. On the question of re-opening schools, he urged the school board to segregate Mexican and white students to do so safely.
Separate and unequal education became codified with the construction of Mexican schools the following year. It continued for decades until the landmark Mendez et al v. Westminster et al case desegregated schools in OC and across the state.
A return to de jure segregation isn't going to happen coming out of coronavirus. But the question of what a post-pandemic Santa Ana will look like after a harrowing experience remains.
To get there medicinally, Latino Health Access will be promoting vaccination throughout hard-hit Latino communities. The county is off to an uneven start, with whites accounting for 38% of those vaccinated through Jan. 25, while Latinos comprise just 11%. For Bracho, recuperating from the pandemic goes beyond just jabs; it also means writing up a new prescription for public policy.
“We need to rebuild with equity,” she says. “We need to create open spaces, affordable housing and improve healthcare. These were the things that put us in trouble in the first place.”