PICO California Organizes Those Closest to the Pain to Improve Their Lives and Communities

By Giving List Staff   |   November 17, 2023
Diverse clergy leaders fight for the protection of renters and the construction of more affordable housing in San Francisco.

Maria Venegas, a PICO California leader based in San Francisco, is an immigrant mother. Evicted twice during the pandemic, she began living in a cockroach-infested single-room hotel with her children and is constantly harassed by the owners who are trying to get her to leave the hotel. “What causes me the most indignation,” says Maria, “is that this harassment has happened in front of my children who have told me that they prefer to drop out of school and work to help me with rent.”

Grassroots leaders turning their faith into action by demanding the reuniting of migrant families.

While waiting in a food line, she met other grassroots leaders with the PICO network who were experiencing similar hardship and working together to find a solution. As she started going to organizing meetings, she began to see her problem as an opportunity, not only to improve her situation but also that of many other families.

After a series of research meetings with elected officials, Maria and other low-income seniors learned that despite being the epicenter of California’s housing crisis, San Francisco had 60,000 housing units sitting empty, many being traded like poker chips by global investors. The leaders in our network who were directly impacted by housing insecurity began to ask why, in the midst of this suffering, were there so many empty housing units in our city?

Inspired by what they learned, several dozen leaders met with city officials and worked together to write a ballot measure to tax empty apartments and use the revenue for housing acquisition and direct housing assistance to low-income seniors and families. Working with allies, we secured 14,000 signatures to qualify for the November 2022 ballot and ran a six-month campaign in which we spoke with 60,000 voters in working-class neighborhoods. Proposition M won with nearly 55% of the vote. Our constant focus, starting with the congregations in the PICO network and moving outward, was on building authentic relationships to create people power, led by those most directly impacted by housing insecurity.

PICO California, the state’s largest interfaith community organizing network, is led by people like Maria who are closest to the pain and therefore closest to the solutions. We work across racial, economic, and religious lines, where grassroots leaders across the Bay Area and the state have turned their faith into action by organizing for a Moral Economy: making affordable and dignified housing a human right, funding schools and communities more than law enforcement and prisons, ensuring inclusion of all immigrants and refugees, and creating a government that is effective in caring for all Californians.

On January 1st, 2024, San Francisco will begin requiring real estate speculators to pay their fair share while investing tens of millions of dollars annually in housing assistance for families and low-income seniors like Maria. Through organizing with the PICO community, we will continue to inspire hope, build power, and create a California where everyone belongs.


PICO California

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Executive Director: Joseph Tomás Mckellar


Our mission is to catalyze faith-based and spiritually-centered people power in California to create systemic change for the most vulnerable so that all Californians thrive.

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The San Francisco Foundation is committed to advancing racial equity and economic inclusion to ensure that everyone in the Bay Area has a chance to get a good job, live in a safe and affordable home, and have a strong political voice. People Improving Communities Through Organizing (PICO) California advances the cause of disadvantaged Californians by organizing for a moral economy, addressing systemic barriers to opportunity, and building multi-racial, multi-faith community power. We are proud to support the work of PICO California as they organize for a Bay Area and a state where opportunity and justice is available to all.
Judith Bell, Chief Impact Officer, San Francisco Foundation

Home is SACRED

PICO California is currently raising money for our statewide “Home Is Sacred” campaign. We are organizing Californians to protect renters against no-fault evictions and close loopholes, make it easier for faith and educational institutions to build affordable housing on their land, and ensure that formerly incarcerated Californians do not face unnecessary hurdles to safe and secure housing. Funding will help develop 5,000 new grassroots community leaders, contact 250,000 voters, and reach two million Californians online. Our priority legislation has the potential to impact over two million Californian families.

Key Supporters

Blue Shield of California Foundation
California Community Foundation
California Endowment
California Wellness Foundation
Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Common Counsel Fund
Crankstart Foundation
East Bay Community Foundation
Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund
Hilton Foundation
James Irvine Foundation
Libra Foundation
McNulty Foundation
Meadow Fund
NEO Philanthropy
Rockefeller Family Fund
San Francisco Foundation
Silicon Valley Community
Susan Sandler Fund
Weingart Foundation