A Conversation with Kristen Kopper, Director of I Am a Warrior: Women and Housing Injustice

Written by Meghan

March 2, 2020

Earlier this month our staff was able to sit down with Kristen Kopper, director and producer of I Am a Warrior: Women and Housing Injustice, to chat about her documentary and the housing crisis facing individuals and families across the country. Here’s what we learned:

For those who might not know, tell me a little bit about yourself and what “I Am a Warrior: Women and Housing Injustice” is all about.

Last year I was a graduate student at UAlbany, I was studying Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema and Screen Studies. I was always interested in film, so I knew for my Master’s thesis I wanted to create some type of documentary film that could highlight an important social justice issue. So, I stumbled on the housing subject, it’s one that I hadn’t known a lot about before, honestly. While I was in school, I was mainly focused on learning about reproductive rights and healthcare access for women, but in a way the housing subject kind of shadows that because it also affects people who are in poverty. Low-income women are the one’s struggling with it the most, similar to accessing reproductive rights. That made me want to delve into this topic and learn more about it. The film covers a wide range of housing issues that are happening, and although it’s focused on the Capital Region, what I learned is that the housing problem really span this whole country. As I was doing research reading scholarly articles and books [I learned], most major cities across the U.S. are facing the same type of housing crisis. So, it’s focused here, but it can relate to wherever you live in the United States.

In Women’s Studies, we try to use a feminist approach, so one thing that entails is creating a space for women to share their experiences or stories. I think giving people the opportunity to share their story is really powerful and that’s often what can create change. In the documentary film, I really wanted to not just cover the facts about the housing issues, but highlight some stories of what women have gone through. So that’s why the film highlights three different women dealing with different housing problems, and allows them to share that story. The film also follows the 24-hour vigil for the 89,000 homeless New Yorkers, which also has some people sharing their personal stories.

The stories you covered in the film really stuck out to me. It was interesting to hear what their personal experiences with housing have been like and the injustices they’re facing. I love that you didn’t share their stories for them; instead, you created a space for people to share their stories the way that they wanted their story to be told. It’s so important to be really respectful and intentional when working with such a vulnerable population, and I think you did that really well.

These situations can be traumatic. I wanted to make sure I was never pushing too much for certain information. Before I began interviews I would say, “You can share what you’re comfortable sharing,” and I’d set up the interview wherever they were comfortable. I went into a lot of their homes so that they could be comfortable while they were sharing their stories. Because I’m sure it can be traumatic and scary for them to go through these experiences again.

You touched on this a little bit before, but what was your drive behind making this film and choosing to cover housing rights and how that relates to women?

The more I looked at housing, the more I realized housing can affect so many other things in your life. If you don’t have a roof over your head, how are you going to be able to maintain a job, get an education, or take care of your family? You really need stable housing in order to achieve other things and it seems like, for a topic that’s so incredibly important, it’s not getting covered very much. Even looking currently, this film was made a year ago, but currently with the Democratic Debates, housing is brought up here and there, but it’s not a main topic, which to me it should be. I think I was in part educating myself too, learning about a topic that’s not covered very much and I was wondering “Why not? I want to learn about that too.”

I think that’s the experience of a lot of people who entered the field of housing services. A lot of us didn’t really know what we were getting into until we started working on the front lines. That’s when all the pieces start coming together and you begin to understand that this is not a simple issue, it’s systematic and multifaceted and we’re facing so many different challenges that somebody, who hasn’t gone out of their way to learn about it or experienced it first hand, might not understand. I think that’s one of the great things about your film; you’re putting a face on this societal issue, making it real and hard to ignore.

It sounds like housing rights are important to you ─ was that always the case or can you remember a specific time that really opened your eyes to the injustice facing many low-income women and families in the Capital Region?

I think because the topic isn’t covered very often in the news or politics, I wasn’t as aware as I should have been of things, but once I did become aware and got in contact with the United Tenants of Albany and learned about some of the experiences that women have and how awful it is, that’s when I really felt like “Yes, I need to jump in and cover this,” because there’s some bad situations that are shocking to learn about. You think that there are systems or laws that are set up to help, but sometimes they’re not as effective as you would think, which is a whole other issue.

It’s like opening a can of worms and the farther you dive in you realize that the system is not working and it hasn’t been working for a long time. We need to change things up because at the end of the day families are hurting and that affects all of us. So, tell me about the process of creating the film. Was there anything about the process that surprised or challenged you?

I began the process in the fall, when I had to write a project proposal and get it accepted through my department. That was a good first step because I had to write a literature review, so I was able to do a lot of background research, which I think was helpful before making the film so I could understand the issue’s foundation. I read back through history and learned about public housing in the 40s, 50s and 60s, which was all this history that I wasn’t really aware of before. Doing that initial research helped me understand how this has been a historical issue and how things have gotten to where they are now. Then, in late January 2019, I started filming and reaching out to people who might be interested in being interviewed, and then it was a race to get it done by May so that I could graduate on time. It was just a lot of filming and a lot of long hours in the editing lab getting it all put together.

I assumed it was going to be really hard to get people who would want to help on the film or want to interview or share their knowledge. I know everyone’s so busy, but it was actually surprising how many people were excited about it and really wanted to hop on. I realized, as I was making this film, that people who work in housing services are really passionate about the subject and about advocating for change.  I would film one person and they would say, “I know so-and-so and they’d be really excited to be interviewed too and share their information.” It was actually a lot easier than I expected to get people to want to donate some of their time to help the film because they were really excited about sharing information and trying to help educate people on the topic, which was awesome.

I know United Tenants played a huge role in the film, but you were also able to talk to some people from Legal Aid as well as our Director of Shelter Operations, Shay. I thought it was great that you were able to get so many different perspectives.

Exactly, again thinking about challenges, the editing process takes a really long time. In order to complete the project by May, I was thinking of doing a 10 or 15 minute film, but once I started delving into the housing topic, there’s just so much to cover and so many different issues that it just ended up being a 40 minute film.  There’s still so much I left out that I could have included if I had endless amounts of time.

Are you thinking about adding a Part Two?

I’ve thought about doing more films to cover more housing related topics or picking subjects to go more in depth. I think Section 8 was really surprising to me. To learn that it’s about a five year wait for Section 8 and that it’s often closed and you can’t apply for it.

That was something I didn’t know beforehand and you actually taught me. I think that speaks to the depth of the film that you were able to present information that someone actively working in this field might not know.  

I read a book that was highlighting Section 8 in other places and they were saying in places like Washington D.C. it’s a ten to twenty year wait. Someone could apply when they have young kids and not get it until they’re a grandma.

With that said, what are you hoping viewers will take away from your film?

I hope that people learn the importance of having stable housing and how that can affect so many other things in your life and why it’s such an important subject for people to be aware of and fighting for. There’s a stigma surrounding homelessness, poverty, and having housing issues, but housing issues can affect anyone. Ironically when I finished this film, I faced a housing issue where my landlord was making up fake reasons to not give me my deposit back when I was moving out. So, it can affect anyone, but I also just want people to have an understanding of the poverty cycle and how easy it is to get stuck in that. I was hoping to get people really fired up about it and to want to join in on the fight.

Well it sounds like you’ve definitely done that within the housing services community, so hopefully we can spread that fire amongst people who are outside our bubble to get more community support and backing around what we’re trying to do.  At the end of the film, we learn that the New York State Home Stability Support Act, that would provide a rent supplement to low-income individuals and families facing homelessness, was not passed. Where do you hope things go from here?

One thing I hear a lot is that politically there seems to be some housing changes for New York City, so more laws passed to help tenants down there. It seems like Upstate New York tends to get a little more ignored. There’s not as much publicity around it. I hope there can be more help for Upstate New York too. After covering all of this and learning more about it, I feel like such a major issue of the housing crisis is that people’s wages aren’t sufficient enough to cover their rent. That’s something affecting more people than we realize, where the majority of your paycheck is going towards rent. When I presented the film, I asked people to raise their hands if they spent more than 50% of their paycheck on rent. Almost the entire room raised their hand and that’s saying something. I think wages need to go up and [politicians] are trying to increase them, but by the time they’re increased to $15 an hour that’s already going to be too low again. We need to look at ways to help make wages and rent more balanced.

One thing I thought about while making this film was that housing is similar to the healthcare issue. Why are people profiting off this? It seems like housing should be a right, where of course you have to pay your rent because you’re living in a house someone owns, but it shouldn’t be someone making a ton of money off of it. It’s the same with healthcare, it should be a guaranteed right that we have reasonable access to.

Right, and not just access to housing, but access to safe housing. That’s one of the biggest issues we come across with running an emergency shelter for families. We’ve seen our length of stay go up significantly because the apartments available in the area can’t pass Code, because landlords have let small issues go unfixed for so long that now the building has deteriorated so much that it’s unsafe. To get landlords incentivized to fix those issues has been a huge challenge for us.

That was actually one thing I saw while working on the film. When [a tenant] had to evacuate her house because of a gas leak. This is one of those “Catch-22s” where Code Enforcement is helpful because they caught that and said, “Yes, this is unsafe, you’re going to need to leave and the landlord’s going to have to fix this.” But they don’t give her housing or somewhere else to go so she’s left homeless.

Exactly, we see a lot of families who come to us from that situation. They reported issues many times to their landlord, who didn’t fix it, and now what was a small leak is a huge problem and Code is giving the tenant a 3-day notice to vacate. It’s terrible, because these families don’t have anywhere to go and then it’s a struggle to get them back into housing because what they can afford might not pass Code.

That’s one thing that I forgot to mention, I chose this topic because I was really focused on studying bodies, and at first that was in relation to reproductive rights and how that affects women’s bodies. But when I stumbled on the housing topic I was surprised by how much housing really affects people’s bodies. That seems like it’s something that’s not researched as much, so I was really interested to learn how the stress of unstable housing or having poor housing conditions affects people’s bodies. With most people I talked to, they did have effects. It may be developing asthma from mold, or gaining weight because your whole paycheck is going to rent so you’re getting the cheap unhealthy food, or the stress of a bad housing situation affects your mental health. So, that’s one thing that I was really looking to learn with the film too.

You’re right, housing is absolutely a social determinant of health. For moms in the shelter, their biggest worry is about where they and their child are going to sleep at night. They’re not going to be thinking to schedule a wellness visit with their pediatrician and then something that might have been easily prevented isn’t prevented anymore.

So, March is Women’s History Month; as you know women have historically been under-represented in the film industry. Why do you think there are so few women in filmmaking and how has your gender influenced your work?

My first thought is that, because there are not a lot of women in film, I really wanted to cover a women’s issue. Women are often found at the center of housing issues because of their lower wages, because they’re assumed to be the household caretaker, or sometimes partners are incarcerated. I do feel like there’s some importance when you are a woman in film to give a space for women to share their voices or, if you’re doing a fictional film, to accurately represent what women go through.

I think part of [why there aren’t a lot of women in film] has to do with what you’re comfortable with and what is given attention. There are women in film, but sometimes their work is not highlighted or not appreciated enough. Sometimes you get pushed to the side when you’re in a group of all men and they’re all helping each other, so you have to work twice as hard. But I do feel there’s been an increase in having some women’s filmmaking highlighted. The Oscar’s is today and this morning I watched The Edge of Democracy, which was made by a female director and is nominated for Best Documentary Feature. I think the more women are able to work in the film industry, the more we are going to see women’s stories and experiences shared in film, which is awesome.

As we wrap things up, can you tell us more about what you’re working on now? Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with our readers?

I can leave it generally and say there is a possibility that I’m going to be starting a project that works on more housing related topics, another documentary that will share more stories in housing.

Well, it sounds like we’ll have to keep our eyes out for that! Any final thoughts you’d like to share with us?

I really wanted this film to be an educational tool to help spread awareness on this issue. That’s partly why I wanted it up on YouTube. If someone watches it and they feel really inspired and want to help make change, please share [the film]. Get more people to watch and to understand the housing issues that are going on here in our community.

We would like to extend a huge thank you to Kristen Kopper for sitting down with us to talk about I Am a Warrior: Women and Housing Injustice. We encourage you to take the time to watch Kristen’s documentary above and share it with your friends and family. 

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