Class of 2021: Batten Student Wants Everyone to Afford Their Own ‘Piece of the Sky’

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Class of 2021: Batten Student Wants Everyone to Afford Their Own ‘Piece of the Sky’

The location of Jasmine Rangel’s childhood house changed the course of her life. Now, she’s working to ensure that everyone has a stable, affordable home.

Jasmine Rangel considers herself lucky; she’s never been without a place to live. But when she looks back on her childhood, she often feels amazed by the tenuousness of that good fortune.

“If any small thing had gone wrong, my life now would be completely different,” said Rangel, who on Friday will receive a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

Rangel’s parents emigrated to the United States from Mexico before she was born. Given that her mother was undocumented, fear of deportation loomed. Money was also tight; her father worked in construction and her mother as a housekeeper. 

But the neighborhood outside Atlanta where Rangel grew up wasn’t far from a public library. She remembers walking back from visits there with her mother, carefully carrying as many as 10 or 15 books at once as she made her way over the uneven sidewalk.

Since her mother couldn’t drive, if they had lived too far from the library to get there on foot, they might not have gotten there at all. And if that had been the case, she said, “I don’t think I would have had the curiosity that I do – the motivation to learn like I do now.”

Rangel has since become passionate about affordable housing. A first-generation college student, she completed her undergraduate degree with support from the Bonner Foundation, which awards scholarships to diverse, low-income students, and went on to work for the New Jersey-based organization through AmeriCorps. 

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One day, she decided to attend a free talk about America’s affordable housing crisis, offered through Princeton’s Eviction Lab, which was just a short walk from the Bonner Foundation’s headquarters. Rangel was captivated by what she heard. After that, “I started going to as many public lectures as I could there,” she said. “And I never stopped wanting to learn more.”

The lectures – along with her own research and conversations with local nonprofit leaders – convinced Rangel that affordable housing was the root of most social problems. If you live in a city with many vacant buildings and a dearth of property taxes, you’ll likely go to a poorly funded school, Rangel learned. If your family can only afford a very old house with lead paint inside, the exposure could cause behavioral issues that might lead you to do poorly in school – and possibly, even further down the line, become incarcerated. And if the bulk of your family’s income goes toward paying for your home, things like visiting the doctor and buying nutritious food become far less feasible.

“It’s an aspect of major social issues that is often overlooked, but if you investigate further, the question always leads to housing in some form or fashion,” Rangel said. “I thought, ‘If this problem is the crux of it all, why aren’t we dedicating more resources to making sure everyone is affordably housed?’”

Given this interest, Rangel considered studying urban planning at Rutgers University, but ultimately chose the Batten School instead. “I wanted a wider perspective,” she said.

Focusing on policy also felt like a natural fit. Given that her parents were immigrants, conversations about citizenship and documentation had been common in her household, and in college she participated in Model U.N., where she developed skills in public speaking and rhetoric.

“I was building up a policy background, even though I didn’t know what I would do with it,” she said.

At Batten, Rangel has been markedly ambitious in her extracurricular service work, acting as president of the Batten Latinx Network, serving as the community engagement chair of Batten Graduate Council, and even co-founding a student organization – the Equity Collaborative. Focused on championing diversity, she’s helped create more inclusive programming and recommended a range of adjustments to faculty and student recruitment.

“I see myself as an agitator,” she said. “I want to positively disrupt the status quo.”

She’s brought that same energy to her other work at Batten, much of which has concerned affordable housing. For her applied policy project, she served as a consultant for Habitat for Humanity’s Charlottesville chapter, making housing policy recommendations and helping to develop online learning modules that train local people on how to advocate for affordable homes in the city. 

The training played an important role in Charlottesville City Council meetings last year, where residents who had used the modules successfully argued for rezoning that will allow for a new housing development with a set percentage of affordable units.

Garrett Trent, who directs community partnerships at the Charlottesville Habitat for Humanity, believes the program Rangel helped develop will have real staying power at the organization. “Habitat intends to use it for many years to come,” he said. Other chapters in Virginia and North Carolina have expressed interest in creating similar programs as well, he added.

Rangel also will deliver a report with a range of recommendations to Habitat for Humanity, including policies that could persuade landlords to take on more low-income tenants, such as tax breaks and an expansion of an existing “risk-reduction fund.” The latter both provides tenants with security deposits and offers landlords a pool of money they can dip into to pay for inspections and property damage.

“I tried to bring light to a topic that isn’t given too much attention,” Rangel said. “We talk about land usage and increasing the affordable housing supply, but we typically overlook the critical role that landlords play in our housing crisis. They are the gatekeepers who can allow people to both access housing and stay in it.”

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But the most effective action Habitat can take, according to Rangel’s research, is to create a Housing Hub, which would include both an online database and a physical office. Landlords looking to advertise properties could post them on the site, while potential tenants could search the listings and use the site’s affordable housing calculator to determine a reasonable amount to pay for housing, given their income.

Located near other social service offices, such as those for eviction counseling and financial literacy, the Housing Hub’s physical office would also offer mediation between tenants and landlords, as well as job fairs, nutrition workshops, and more.

“It’s a one-stop shop for community members to help them get through whatever financial hardships and set them well on their way to a more stable future,” Rangel said.

Throughout the past year, Trent has been impressed by Rangel’s dedication. “I’ve never met someone so passionate about affordable housing policy,” he said. “This can be a very dense area to wade through, but Jasmine reminds us how important it is to fight for just and equitable housing policy at the local, state and national levels.”  

After graduation, Rangel, a recipient of this year’s Edgar F. Shannon Award of UVA’s Z Society, will return to Princeton’s Eviction Lab as a research specialist. She looks forward to contributing to studies that will hopefully move the country one step closer to establishing stable, affordable housing for all. 

In her research and in her own life, Rangel has seen how much where you live matters. Her parents no longer live in the Atlanta suburb where she grew up, near the library, but they recently purchased a house with a large amount of land and a beautiful garden, she said. Her father calls their new home his pedacito de cielo, Spanish for “little piece of the sky.”

“For me, the word ‘home’ exudes this notion of story and history and ancestry,” Rangel said. Although she never faced housing insecurity as a child, “I’ve seen how much those stressors impact folks’ lives negatively,” she said. “I want to strive so that people of a similar background to mine can thrive and create their own definition of a home.”

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Erin Tor

Director of Communications and Marketing Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy