Christina Avina

St. Helena's Cristina Avina and her 7-year-old son have found affordable housing options "few to none" in St. Helena.

The irony for Cristina Avina, the Family Services coordinator at the Up Valley Family Centers, is that while she is trying to find housing for her own family, part of her job requires her to try to help other families do the same.

Avina is a 31-year-old single mother who is engaged to be married, works full time in St. Helena, sends her 7-year-old son to the St. Helena Catholic School and lives with her parents and siblings in Calistoga. She and her fiance, who works in the restaurant industry in St. Helena and lives with his mother, would like nothing more than to raise their family in a place of their own in St. Helena, but the options available to them are few to none. After several frustrating months of searching for herself and her fiance and on an ongoing basis for her clients, Avina has concluded, “There’s just nothing.”

Even if she found that rare house or apartment for rent, she would be torn between her needs and her responsibility to her clients who are in even greater need. “Right now,” she said, “I am working with five families who have had to relocate because their apartments are being renovated by the owners and they don’t know if they will be able to move back in.” Avina is also helping a sixth client who is eager to move because the landlord of the home where she rents a room won’t let her use the kitchen.

Every day Avina scours Craigslist and contacts local property rental companies, and every day she comes up with the same thing.

“If you can spend at least $2,000 a month plus utilities for a place, every couple of weeks something pops up but that is too much to spend for us and for the families we are trying to help,” Avina said.

At that rate, rent would consume more than 50 percent of her and her fiance’s combined pretax income. Yet even if a family can afford the minimum price, much of the more affordable housing in St. Helena is going the way of the bidding wars in San Francisco, where a potential renter will offer a cash bonus or even higher rent to secure a spot.

When asked about availability at complexes such as the Stonebridge and Hunt’s Grove apartments or the Vista del Valle trailer homes north of the city, Avina shrugs and explains another barrier she and many families face. In addition to long waiting lists at each of those places, many families earn too much to qualify for income-limited affordable housing units but too little to afford the general market–rate housing that occasionally comes available.

For example, a family of four can earn no more than $49,100 per year, or 160 percent of the federal poverty level, to qualify for a two-bedroom Vista del Valle home in St. Helena. Considering the high cost of living in Napa County, that income does not go very far.

Known for her persistence in meeting her clients’ needs, Avina is not giving up hope that somehow she and the families she is working with will find housing. But each day her optimism dwindles just a little bit more. As St. Helena is the hub of all their lives, it’s hard for Avina to tell her clients that the city they know and love has no room for them. It’s even harder for her to believe it herself.

Thanks to a grant from Napa Valley Community Foundation, Our Town St. Helena is pleased to introduce some of the people who live in or seek so-called “affordable housing” in St. Helena. These are people who make daily contributions to our town and are committed to our community. Our Town St. Helena is a local nonprofit organization that advocates for the moderate and low-income housing needed to keep our community robust and economically viable. To find out more about us or to become a member, please contact us at ourtownsh@gmail.com or visit our website, OurTownStHelena.org.

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