A photo of several of the candidates participating in the TENAC forum
credit: Sarah Tascone

The Tenants Advocacy Coalition held the second half of its Candidate’s Forum Wednesday, May 30, at the Waterside Towers in Southwest D.C. The moderator was Ronald Jackson, president of the Waterside Residents Association and a TENAC member. 

[Read more: Tenants’ rights group invites candidates to debate housing at the local and national levels] 

Attendees included candidates for member of the D.C. Council from Ward 5 Joyce Robinson Paul (Green party) and Bradley Thomas (Democrat) and incumbent Kenyan McDuffie (Democrat); candidate for member of the D.C. Council from Ward 6 Lisa Hunter (Democrat), challenger to incumbent Charles Allen (Democrat), who was invited but did not attend; candidate for Shadow Senator Andria Thomas (Democrat),  incumbent Shadow Senator Michael Brown (Democrat) and incumbent Shadow Representative Franklin Garcia (Democrat).  

TENAC routinely holds such forums prior to elections to allow tenants to interact with candidates on housing issues. A major issue this year was D.C. Council’s vote to exclude single family home renters from the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. Another was the process to amend the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides housing development. Washington, D.C. statehood was also discussed extensively in relation to affordable housing.  

Paul, the Ward 5 Green Party candidate, introduced herself as a 37-year Ward 5 resident and homeowner who is concerned about over-development.  “Our neighborhood looks like New York City — skyscrapers,” she said. “I want to make sure the people of the District of Columbia are served, not corporations or developers.”  

Thomas, a Democrat and  also a long-term Ward 5 resident, touted his service as chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5E and as an attorney in housing court. He said his five-point plan included affordable housing. “I’m the only candidate who has represented tenants in court—never represented landlords,” he said. 

McDuffie used his allotted time to share his goals and accomplishments as councilmember. “I want to make sure city-owned land is set aside for affordable housing,” he said.  

McDuffie also discussed the bill he introduced to limit background checks on some tenants, The Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act of 2016). Moderator Ronald Jackson commented that the background check legislation was very important to “stem the tide of rampant evictions in D.C.” 

The first issue for discussion was the TOPA vote. Candidates were also asked if they would repeal or restore the Comprehensive Plan.  

Paul said the changes to both the Comprehensive Plan and TOPA were “disgusting, to say the least.”  

“I’m a homeowner, and if I had a tenant for 15 years, I would want to give them everything I could, because for 15 years they have paid my taxes, paid my mortgage. I think they have a right to first refusal.” 

Bradley said he agreed but the language in the Comprehensive Plan  proposal was bad because it replaced “mandatory” with “optional.” He said he was slightly ambivalent about TOPA because it could be abused by “less than scrupulous tenants.”  

“The problem is that it allows the tenant to tie up a home indefinitely,” Bradley said. 

McDuffie said he voted for the exemption to TOPA, and his focus now was more on displacement.  

The moderator remarked that the Comprehensive Plan proposal was “good for people who already have a lot of money,” and that it needed tenant input.  

An audience member asked the panel how they would protect the people at the bottom, moving ahead 20 years. 

Paul responded first. “We have a huge budget but 50 to 80 percent of Area Median Income [to determine what housing options qualify as ‘affordable’] is not enough,” she said. “We need to reform AMI. By lumping us in with Maryland and Virginia, the income level doesn’t reflect D.C. It should be 30 percent.” 

Bradley responded by saying that the crime rate was a major concern and that education and vocational training were needed as a deterrent. He said he would recommend the city return to an elected school board and provide better support for teachers. “My wife is a teacher,” he said. “Teachers are afraid for their jobs every day.”  

Bradley added that education was not the only solution, just part of it. His vision for affordable housing would be a mixed-income model. “Neighborhoods with diverse incomes are stronger. We learn from each other,” he said. 

The forum then moved to the shadow delegation race. All the candidates stressed the importance of D.C. statehood and explained how they were fighting for it. 

Franklin Garcia, the incumbent shadow U.S. Representative, running unopposed in the Democratic primary, spoke briefly on the importance of statehood for affordable housing. Garcia left early for a meeting with United Farmworkers co-founder Dolores Huerta, who he said was a strong advocate for D.C. statehood. 

[Read more: From one filmmaker to another: Franklin Garcia breaks down DC Statehood, TV production and community support] 

Eleven-year incumbent Shadow Senator Michael Brown said he gained support abroad for D.C. statehood. “It should be an embarrassment to America that D.C. doesn’t have statehood.” 

Andria Thomas, challenging Brown for his seat, said the reaction to the 2016 general election made her hopeful for D.C. statehood, for example, the push for changing gerrymandering. 

Hunter, the only Ward 6 candidate to participate in the forum, spoke last. She said her ward had the least amount of rent control in the city and focused much of her discussion on her opponent, Charles Allen. 

“He voted to cut corporate and estate taxes during an affordable housing crisis. I will immediately reverse those votes,” Hunter said, adding that Allen voted against Trayon White’s amendment to extend the amount of time rapid re-housing vouchers last. White’s amendment failed to pass by one vote.  

[Read more: DC Council passes HSRA Amendment but withholds $8.9 million from a rapid rehousing extension]