Unconventional Housing, Fear of Eviction Challenge Bay Area Census Efforts

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Victor Manuel Escobar Rivas used to live in an apartment, but moved into a trailer three years ago. (Isabella Jibilian/KQED)

For the past three years, Victor Manuel Escobar Rivas has lived in a trailer on a shaded road in Mountain View. His “trailita,” as he calls it, is one of more than 30 mobile homes that extend down the block in a half-mile long line of grey metal.

Escobar’s trailer doesn’t have an official address, so he directs people to send letters to a nearby friend. She stops by his trailer to bring him his mail every few days. But while friends and family know to write him at this address, the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t.

Escobar is one of thousands of Bay Area residents who live in “unconventional housing” and are at risk of being missed in the 2020 Census, which is tasked with counting every person in the nation. Since 2010, soaring Bay Area rents have forced residents to live in garages, sheds, mobile homes, or crowded multi-family apartments.

That’s not the only new challenge when it comes to counting the Bay Area. Nationally, census forms are going online, the federal government has cut the Census Bureau’s budget, and a citizenship question may be added. Changes like these make counting the Bay Area’s immigrants, non-English speakers, ethnic minorities, and low-income populations even more difficult.

Related Census Coverage

“California is the hardest state to count,” said Anne Im, a program officer for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “We have the highest amount of hard-to-count populations.”

Next March, the Census will begin mailing postcards to addresses across the nation, directing people to fill out the census form online. If a household doesn’t respond after multiple mailings, paid enumerators will knock on doors to ask census questions in person.

But already, Bay Area counties and non-profit organizations are preparing by canvassing neighborhoods to make address lists more complete and recruiting “trusted messengers” like priests and community organizers to encourage hard-to-count populations to fill out the census.


An undercount could have serious consequences. For each person missed, a county loses an estimated $2,000 in federal funding annually. Since the 2010 census, San Jose lost out on $200 million in federal money, according to Mayor Sam Liccardo.

The census also determines California’s political representation. Though the Public Policy Institute of California predicts that the state's population is on track to keep 53 seats in the U.S. House, an undercount could drop that down to 52 seats.

The 1990 census, widely considered to be a flub, missed approximately 4 million people. It cost California $2 billion in federal funding and a seat in Congress, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Census data is used to allocate federal funding for a variety of public programs, and an undercount in California could decrease their budgets.

"Imagine longer waits at the hospital, in the ER waiting room, if there's less funding for hospitals. Imagine less money for Head Start programs. Imagine less money for public housing for the Bay Area, because people are not getting counted,” said Perla Ni, CEO of CommunityConnect Labs, a nonprofit that works with census outreach.

More than 30 mobile homes extend down the block near Rengstorff Park in Mountain View.
More than 30 mobile homes extend down the block near Rengstorff Park in Mountain View. (Isabella Jibilian/KQED)

Budget Cuts at the Bureau

Faced with outreach challenges and with federal funding at stake, the California state government has already appropriated $100 million for census outreach. The governor has asked to add another $54 million in funds.

This mobilization is partly in reaction to federal budget cuts at the Census Bureau. Transitions to digital tools — like mapping via satellite, or moving the first wave of census responses online, have saved the Bureau money. But these cuts also seek to eliminate expensive field work.

“The U.S. Census Bureau funding has been cut significantly and that will impact particularly their ability to do non-response follow-up,” said Im of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Nonprofit and county staff emphasize that field work is essential to reaching hard-to-count communities, since they may not be able to respond online, may be suspicious of the government, or may fear that their information will be misused.

“We’re starting our outreach now, because the Census [Bureau] outreach hasn’t started yet,” said Megan Gosch, census lead for San Mateo County.


Unconventional Housing

Victor Manuel Escobar Rivas is not the only Bay Area resident without a mailbox.

“We have a housing crisis, people are renting whatever they can,” said Julio Garcia of Nuestra Casa, a community organization in East Palo Alto.

Garcia sees many residents who are shut out of the expensive housing market but are employed in the area. To avoid lengthy commutes, people rent sheds and converted garages. Others get an recreational vehicle and pay to park it in a backyard. Some even rent tents in backyards.

“This is the norm now. It’s not the exception,” said Garcia.

Recently, Megan Gosch flicked through a powerpoint in a conference room in Redwood City. A white colonial house with a red door came on the screen, captioned, “TRADITIONAL HOUSING.” Another few slides flashed by, and another slide showed a trailer sitting in the backyard of a home, captioned, “NON-TRADITIONAL HOUSING.”

In May of 2018, presentations like these were used as part of an effort to canvas neighborhoods for unconventional housing, in order to add them to the master address form. Back in 2018, cities and counties across the nation took part in the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA). For cities worried about an undercount, including San Jose, New York City, and Houston, Texas, canvassing can produce addresses not found elsewhere.

Throughout May and June of 2018, canvassers in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties targeted neighborhoods deemed “hard to count.”

They were taught to spot the difference between a garage and an inhabited garage. They looked for extra doorbells, satellite dishes, or drapes in the windows. From the sidewalk, they checked to see if power lines from the main house extended to the extra unit, or even looked to see if they could see children’s drawings through the windows.

In Santa Clara County, canvassers added 3,100 addresses to the list. In San Mateo County, they added 1,915. And in East Palo Alto alone, they found 701 units.

But canvassing efforts cannot find all forms of unconventional housing. For one, apartments that seem traditional from the outside might house multiple families.

“People are sharing their apartments. I don’t know if those people are going to get counted or not,” said Garcia.

Two or three families might share a one-bedroom apartment. That can be about 15 people in an apartment designed for one or two, explained Garcia.

And even if a census form arrives in their mailbox, or an enumerator shows up at their door, tenants fear that a landlord could discover their sublease.

“The fear is that you are going to get evicted if the landlord finds out how many people are living there," said Garcia. "And then where do you go?”

“We need to remind people that Title 13 of the U.S. Code prohibits any other governmental agency from accessing your information, so the local planning department will have zero access to your information,” said Casey Farmer, census lead for Alameda County.


In April, Marcos Gutierrez, host of “Hecho in California” on KIQI, a San Francisco Spanish-language radio station, received a tearful call.

An older woman told the host she had received a questionnaire in the mail. Between sobs, she explained that she had completed and returned the form. Anxiously, she asked if it was the 2020 Census. “She was concerned that she would be ‘given away,'” said a KIQI staff member. “She was very upset.”

In 2017, immigrants comprised more than one-third of the population in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties, according to the American Community Survey.

So the threat of a new question asking respondents if they are citizens of the United States looms large for California. Experts say that the question could suppress responses in immigrant communities.

A survey conducted by UCLA political scientist Matt Barreto found that 11 to 18% of immigrants said that they would not respond to the census if it included a citizenship question.

The fight over whether to include the citizenship question is now in the Supreme Court. But advocates there are already high levels of fear in immigrant and racial-minority communities that could suppress census participation.

Anti-immigrant sentiment and press about the citizenship question have caused “unprecedented” levels of fear, according to Julia Marks, attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“Regardless of whether the citizenship question is on the form or not, the damage has already been done,” said Geraldine Alcid, executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice.

There has also been an uptick in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) activity over the last few months, according to Hamid Yazdan Panah, Advocacy Director for the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice. In the Bay Area, “ICE enforcement happens on a daily basis,” said Panah.

In response, organizations like Nuestra Casa regularly distribute “red cards” to undocumented immigrants that assert their constitutional rights. The first bullet point on many red cards reads, “NO ABRA LA PUERTA," or "Don’t open the door." The second bullet point on many red cards reads, “NO CONTESTE NINGUNA PREGUNTA,” or "Don’t answer any questions."

These cards are aimed at undocumented immigrants who fear that ICE is knocking at their door. But if it’s a census enumerator, this advice makes counting near impossible. Nuestra Casa said it encourages immigrants to respond to census mailings, so that enumerators don’t need to come knocking.

“It's going to be challenging. It's going to be hard,” said Im. “There's going to have to be a lot of people working together from every sector, from nonprofits and philanthropy to business to the faith communities. This is going to be an all-hands-on-deck effort.”