Affordable Housing Customers Pack Council Chambers
The District is gentrifying so quickly that moderate and low-income people who have lived here a long time are being forced to the fringes of the city to find housing they can afford, particularly to the poorest and most neglected parts of Wards 7 and 8. They can’t afford to pay rapidly increasing rents or to buy houses in better-off neighborhoods. The large group of D.C. residents who depend on public housing for a place to live cannot even afford the prices developers offer label as “affordable” as part of their residential/retail/office mixed-use requirements to be approved to build in the city. A list of about 40 D.C. citizens, public housing advocates and experts testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization at a May 4 budget oversight hearing. Resentment was evident among those that testified. “The city has plenty of money,” said Monica Kamen, co-director of the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition. She noted D.C.’s annual surpluses of $200 million, a fund balance of over $2 billion, projected revenues of over $200 million, and planned tax cuts that would largely benefit wealthy estates and businesses. This year the Bowser administration invested in the District’s wealthiest residents and businesses rather than the communities that have been struggling for basics such as food and housing, according to Kamen’s testimony. She added that, for the second year in a row, there is no new funding for the Local Rent Supplement Program that many low-income residents depend on. “We have to pick a fight with the status quo,” testified Parisa Norouzi, the executive director of Empower D.C. “This budget season we have to do something drastic. There is a long history of racism [in the city]; we have to repair the harm done. We need drastic measures to enable lifting up the people, starting with affordable housing.” In addition to creating true affordability, the advocates called on D.C. Council to invest substantial funds in repairing existing low-cost housing and public-housing infrastructure. The state of disrepair that plagues much of the city’s public housing stock makes existing housing unlivable and contributes to the housing shortage, both advocates agreed. The cost of repairs for existing housing is nominal compared to what it takes to build new housing structures. Last year, the Bowser administration broadcast that it had found $15 million in leftover rental-assistance money from the D.C. Housing Authority’s budget to fund some infrastructure spending. But this year, there is none budgeted. Several at the hearing said celebrated that there was $25 million devoted to public housing repairs in this year’s budget proposal but said one year is not enough. “The city needs to prioritize every year to protect public housing,” Daniel del Pielago, organizing director for Empower D.C. explained in phone interview. He called for a doubling of the $25 million commitment next year. Anita Bonds, chairperson of the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, has proposed a legislation that would guarantee that at least $120 million of the city’s budget be reserved each year, starting in 2017, for the Housing Production Trust Fund that provides loans to affordable housing developers. Mayor Bowser has voluntarily proposed $100 million dollars for the fund year after year. While this and more is needed each year, it is not yet guaranteed in future proposals by Bowser or other mayors to come. Bonds’ proposal would use funds from real property transfer taxes and deed recordation taxes combined, according to materials from her office. The bill is currently in her committee awaiting action. “We need to ask the Housing Authority what they need,” del Pielago said. “That money is somewhere; they just need to find it.” Bonds told those gathered at the hearing, “We still are at a point where we have individuals wandering in the wilderness trying to find affordable housing.” She said she thinks vouchers for low-income renters are necessary. Nechama Masliansky, a senior advocate for So Others Might Eat noted that when SOME’s housing intake opened recently, they received more than 2,000 calls. The waiting list for aid from the D.C. Housing Authority, the agency charged with providing affordable housing in the District, is currently 40,000, Several of those signed up to testify protested the economic disparities in D.C. and the money the Bowser administration has spent helping the affluent. “Are we going to give tax breaks to millionaires when there are people living on the streets in D.C.?” said Claire Zippel, an analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. One glaring statistic Norouzi highlighted in her testimony was that the city is budgeting only $85 million for affordable housing this year while it is spending $280 million on a new streetcar. Several complained that communities receiving the most money are those that are near transportation hubs such as Metro stops, not those most in need of repairs. Kamen told the assembled, “We need to show the moral courage to spend more money on affordable housing.” She specifically called for more funding to support the widely used Local Rents Supplement Program and more emphasis on building housing for residents whose income is at 30 percent or below of the Area Median Income. Many “affordable” units are briced at 60 or 80 percent of the AMI, which is remains high due to the city’s extremely wealthy residents and those in the surrounding counties. There are a lot more low-income people than the government acknowledges and they need to be provided vouchers, according to Kamen. Discrimination in granting these vouchers also needs to be dealt with. Residents of the low-income neighborhood Barry Farm went to court in the fall claiming that a mixed-use gentrified housing and retail development slated for the area would uproot their community and displace many. The residents echoed the language Mayor Bowser included in her budget, marketed as “A Roadmap to Inclusive Prosperity” and stating that residents who want to live here should be entitled to a place to live regardless of their means. Emma Owens, a Barry Farm resident, told the committee her home repairs had been done inadequately and didn’t fix the problems. She alleged purposeful neglect as tactic to force her to move. Paulette Matthews, who has lived at Barry Farm most of her life, complained that the rent restrictions that are considered “affordable housing” are in reality way beyond residents’ means. “You know they’re not for everyone,” she told Bonds and the committee. “Depending on where you live, you can be forced out by high prices.” The Barry Farm redevelopment plan promises one-for-one replacement housing for any current resident that wishes to stay. But Mathews noted one-for-one replacement doesn’t account for inferior quality or significantly reduced living space. Berlin Dean, another public witness who is an engineer by training, told the committee he has inspected several units at Barry Farm. The buildings are not in bad shape, the repairs could be done economically without spending too much money. Glenwood Smith, another resident, requires a nurse and special accomodations in his living space due to paralysis that resulted from a 2015 accident. He testified that the Housing Authority disregarded his request for a disability voucher and recommended that he go to a shelter instead. “Don’t send me to the rat race,” he told the committee. “It could be you.” He added, “We need money and vouchers until there are no people on the streets.” After hearing this stream of citizens and experts testify, Bonds assured them she’d been listening. “I will do all I can most definitely,” she said. “You can count on that.” Resident Daima Lewis said that she came to the city largely because her two kids were both accepted at the prestigious Duke Ellington School of Music here in D.C. But she lives in Anacostia with them and has trouble making ends meet. Recently, she said, she had to choose between paying her water bill and paying for her daughter’s college food bill. She opted in favor of her daughter, and as happy endings go she credited Chairperson Bonds with helping her get her water turned back on. Lewis claimed in her testimony that most of D.C.’s affordable public housing is not fit for living. “D.C. does have money, and landlords need to be held accountable,” she said. “It’s not fair if you’re low-income to be locked into bad living conditions.” A recent investigation by the Washington City Paper uncovered abhorrent conditions — including multiple faucets overflowing with backed up feces and sewage — in many properties managed by the now infamous Sanford Capital. City Paper reported a whopping 114 of those properties were subsidized for low-income tenants by the D.C. Department of Human Services and another 225 were occupied by Housing Authority voucher holders. Lori Leibowitz, a public-interest lawyer who coordinates Neighborhood Legal Services for Affordable Housing, presented the committee with some stark numbers. There are 26,000 very low-income households in D.C. paying half their income in rent, according to Leibowitz. These households include one-fifth of the District’s children. Also, more than 18,000 very low-income households are paying at least 80 percent of their income on rent. If people continue to be forced to “live on the edge,” the city will have a huge, larger bill to pay in medical expenses, lost productivity, missed school and other areas, Leibowitz emphasized.