San Diego nonprofit gets grant to help seniors living in its affordable housing communities

Denise Obrero understood the power of housing stability early in her career and learned a deep respect for elders and seniors from her family and community. The ability to combine those passions in her latest work with Community HousingWorks is an opportunity she welcomes.

The nonprofit organization develops, rehabilitates and operates affordable housing in San Diego County and California, providing programming, resources and services to help residents.

Last month, it was one of a number of local nonprofits awarded grants from The San Diego Foundation for efforts to enhance the quality of life for older San Diegans.

With a $30,000 grant, CHW is launching a yearlong pilot program for seniors 55 and older in their housing communities to work part time in areas that include education-related programs with children, health and wellness programs, and services that include food delivery or financial literacy support for fellow senior residents.

Obrero, 50, is director of programs for the nonprofit and has previously worked as a teacher and in managing public funding to support affordable housing developers. She divides her time between living in Golden Hill with her son, Kai Pele, and their dog, Chivo; and San Clemente to take care of her aging parents. She took some time to talk about the organization’s pilot program and how her experiences growing up in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and her previous work in education, have influenced how she approaches her nonprofit work today.

Q: Where did the idea for this kind of program for seniors come from?

A: For some time, we’ve been discussing how the senior population in San Diego and in CHW’s communities is growing rapidly. We’ve made some move in terms of our development focus to address this, by building several senior-focused communities in the past few years (including North Park Seniors, which specifically serves the LGBTQ population, along with Mission Cove Seniors in Oceanside, and Windsor Gardens, which is a rehab project in Escondido).

This initiative is really about the programs and services we deliver once these communities are built. All of our programs and services are designed to provide residents with a platform for success, and what that looks like for seniors is the ability to age in a safe, stable and affordable home where they can rely on neighbors and engage in community activities that increase health and wellness.

Q: Why did your organization want to focus on employment, financial independence and decreasing isolation?

A: In conversations about seniors in our society, we hear that they still have a lot to contribute, even in retirement. There is a tremendous amount of leadership and energy that can benefit other generations of residents, while giving seniors a way to stay mentally and physically active. There’s a great deal of data to support that decreasing isolation leads to better health outcomes, which means greater longevity and independence. We saw a need with our after-school programming, which really excels when we have part-time support in helping with the children at each of our sites. This pilot will test whether these two needs can be met with the same initiative, and to see how that might function in terms of providing some additional resources to seniors living on a fixed income, particularly at a time when prices for so many things are rising.

Q: How have your experiences growing up in Los Angeles, and as a teacher in New York and Oakland, influenced the way you’ve approached your later work in nonprofit organizations?

A: All of my experiences in North America and living abroad have shaped the way that I approach working in high-need communities and raising my son. I am a compassionate, empathetic, tolerant and spiritual human being. The epidemic of gang-related homicides while growing up in L.A. was deeply impactful, and I have seen generational trauma in the communities that I have worked in. Looking back, I would not change one decision because in each of these urban cities, I’ve learned a great deal about myself. I lean into taking risks and moving to new areas because I enjoy the challenges that come with not knowing everyone. I have intentionally continued to work in a nonprofit organization because I want to positively influence and move the needle in terms of using housing as a platform for resident success.

What I love about Golden Hill …

I was drawn to Golden Hill because it offers one of San Diego’s most historic and architecturally eclectic buildings with many homes from before the 1900s. It is centrally located and close to downtown. It is a vibrant community of cool shops, restaurants and boutiques intermixed with small mom-and-pop businesses that I like to support. The neighborhood is very walkable, and the neighbors are friendly. Golden Hill has the type of vibe and diversity that reminds me of growing up in Los Angeles and parts of the Bay Area.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work?

A: Our current housing crisis is clearly a challenging health issue. We struggle to debunk and fight against the “Not in My Backyard” attitudes, and we cannot build homes fast enough to meet our current regional housing gaps. Another glaring layer to this is the historical context. When we analyze the federal housing policies in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a deliberate system of oppression targeted at people of color. The federal government created the Federal Housing Association (FHA) in order to spur homeownership. However, the long-term mortgage loan opportunities were only for White homeowners. Redlining occurred in areas like southeastern San Diego, which were earmarked as “hazardous.” If you are reading my story today and are intrigued to learn more about the history of subsidized housing, racial covenants and their role in housing segregation, please, take the time to read “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” by Richard Rothstein.

Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?

A: Hearing our senior residents’ lived experiences and stories. They embody genuine humility, grace and grit. For me, I feel the human connection with people who have the same dreams for their children and grandchildren as I do. Since 1994, I have been working in this vibrant industry. My first career path was teaching in urban cities and when I conducted home visits to my students’ apartments in communities like West Oakland, I saw firsthand that opportunities began with housing stability. Seeing the smiles and successes from our residents has been the most rewarding part of this work. Knowing that neighbors are consistently caring for each other — especially during last year’s lockdown — was truly inspirational.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: “Doors will close, doors will open in your life” and “This, too, shall pass.” My 78-year-old dad’s sage advice has helped me to clearly recognize that a negative event or circumstance often leaves room for the beginning of something positive. In 1977, my parents took a big leap of faith and became small business owners in South Central Los Angeles. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, it felt like the world was closing in on all of us. My parents embodied the resilience that you need to carry on along with the residents. Our community rallied together and collectively became organized and stronger in many ways.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: People often ask about my nationality. On my father’s side, his mom emigrated from Hermosillo, Mexico, and his dad emigrated from the Philippines. On my mother’s side, her parents emigrated from Japan to Los Angeles (via Angel Island). In 1942, my grandparents lost everything they owned when they were forced into the Japanese internment camps. When my grandparents and family returned from the Wyoming relocation center, they helped to create the close-knit neighborhood of Little Tokyo in downtown L.A. There was a strong sense of belonging that provided ongoing support for seniors and residents in need. Because of my multiracial background, I see the world from a multicultural lens. My relatives on both sides of my family have instilled a strong respect for all elders and seniors. Elders offer their life experiences and stories, and bring wisdom that is part of the fabric of our extended family and collective community.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: It starts off with pretty strong coffee and lounging in the backyard garden patio. I would definitely (join) my two close friends from my UC San Diego days to get a body detox spa treatment at Karma Massage in Hillcrest. Afterward, we would find a Korean barbecue or sushi spot to share a leisurely lunch where we’re typically eating and talking for hours. That evening, I would get my dog and walk along the beach in Del Mar, watching the sunset.

On Sunday morning, I enjoy reading the print version of the paper and going to yoga in the park. My ideal day would be spent listening to podcasts and Common Kings island music, and maybe paddle boarding at the beach. I also enjoy stopping by The Ecology Center in Encinitas and purchasing a farm share fresh produce box for the rest of the week. My weekend would wrap up with barbecuing in the backyard and enjoying time with my aging parents and my son. We always try to plan Sunday dinners together.