Gloria Rebecca Gomez

(Arizona Mirror) Yoshi Castillo has lived with housing insecurity for most of her life. Growing up, her family weathered multiple evictions and lived paycheck-to-paycheck, once even ending up with nowhere to go.

That struggle is shared by thousands of other Arizonans across the state, and was the impetus that moved Castillo to share her story with Gov. Katie Hobbs, in the hopes that her administration might take steps to redress the issue.

“This is the current state and reality for a lot of families in Arizona facing unlivable wages and unaffordable housing,” she said, during a Feb. 22 meeting between community activist organizations and the governor.

Arizona is ranked among the five worst states for affordable housing, with homelessness in recent years outstripping national rates. And evictions in Maricopa County alone have begun to top highs not seen since the 2008 recession.

For community organizations like Living United for Change in Arizona, Arizona Center for Empowerment and Fuerte Arts Movement, whose ranks Castillo joined earlier this week, those alarm bells signal a need for executive action.

“These are priorities that we’re going to continue to work towards with the legislature — as difficult as that is going to be,” Hobbs said, when asked by Castillo to commit to acting on the crisis.

The budget wishlist for social justice groups mirrors priorities Hobbs has proposed. For the first time in decades, community activists are hopeful their calls to invest in everyday Arizonans will be heard.

Stephanie Maldonado, the managing director for the Arizona Center for Empowerment, a worker-focused organization that has advocated for a “People’s First Budget” for years with little success, told the Arizona Mirror that it was “powerful” and moving to speak with the governor. Hobbs’ predecessor, Doug Ducey, refused requests to meet and during Jan Brewer’s tenure, protests of the anti-immigrant SB1070 law she championed resulted in members being dragged out of the executive tower.

Now, Maldonado said, the group’s budget proposals have a foot in the door. Their budget calls for 24 weeks of paid family and medical leave, $40 million to expand the state’s Arizona Promise Program, which provides scholarships for low-income students seeking higher education, and $150 million for Arizona’s Housing Trust Fund, which would help families like Castillo’s via housing vouchers, temporary shelter assistance, and increased affordable housing options.

Last year, the legislature approved a record $60 million dollar investment in the housing fund, after more than a decade of inconsistent and low funding. Hobbs’ executive budget released last month proposes increasing that to $150 million, and adding $40 million to the Arizona Promise Program, as well as allocating an additional $40 million to create a fund for Dreamers working towards a college education.

But the Republican-majority legislature has panned Hobbs’ budget proposal, and its priorities are sharply in contrast with those of organizations like Maldonado’s. Two bills, both proposed by Democrats, to enact the group’s paid family and medical leave priority were never put up for a vote, and are likely dead for the year. It isn’t the first time similar bills have been introduced, either: Living United for Change in Arizona, which lobbied on behalf of them, estimates identical efforts have failed for as many as six years.

And for some Republican lawmakers, the meeting itself was a step too far.

“Gotta admit, I never thought I’d see the day where any Arizona Governor, R or D, would give an ultra-radical group like LUCHA any credibility by meeting with them in the Gov’s office,” tweeted Coolidge Sen. T.J. Shope. “Friends, our Gov is NO moderate if she’s meeting with leftist orgs like this who chase down US Senators into bathrooms.”

LUCHA, which led the meeting, was widely criticized in 2021 after one of its members followed U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema into a bathroom at Arizona State University, asking her to include a pathway to citizenship in the Build Back Better Act she helped spearhead.

The group is hopeful its priorities will find more success in the budget negotiation process, despite an acrimonious start after both the legislature and Hobbs rejected each other’s proposals. If that avenue fails, however, LUCHA is ready to campaign for supportive candidates in the 2024 election cycle.

“We want to continue to elect candidates that will co-govern with the community,” said Maldonado, who also heads LUCHA.