A crowd of people sitting and listening to a panel of speakers.
Audience members lined up at a microphone to present their housing questions, concerns, and solutions at the Nov. 19 forum. Photo by Angie Whitehurst.

On Nov. 19, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton hosted an event at the 19th Street Baptist Church on housing in the District of Columbia. The name of the event was “The affordable housing crisis: the search for answers.”
Washington, D.C. faces a shortage of over 30,000 affordable and available rental homes for people who earn 30 percent or less of the Area Median Income, according to Kyle Arbuckle of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.. “Put another way, the District only has 40 affordable and available homes for every 100 [Extremely Low Income] renter household,” he said.

Arbuckle presented advocacy as a solution. He said 58% of D.C. Residents are renters. If they organized into a voting block, their feet on the ground could perhaps have the power to enable change now.

Doni Crawford of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute said that when low-income families spend most of their income on housing, they are not only at risk of eviction and homelessness. They also are more likely to have an empty fridge, experience depression, and have trouble getting to medical appointments. Their kids often face deep stress that affects their ability to succeed in school. When these families get affordable housing, their lives stabilize greatly.

“Housing is just 3% of D.C.’s budget, yet it clearly is way more than 3% of the city’s problems,” Crawford said. “We need to invest in housing like we invest in schools – and engage both in building new housing and expanding rental subsidy programs.”

She added that an overwhelming majority of extremely low income households in the District are Black and that DC was found by two recent studies to have the highest rate of gentrification. The city lost more than half of its affordable housing during the early 2000s.

Scott Kratz of the local nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River lifted up the 11th Street Bridge Park project he directs as an example of “equitable development” to prevent gentrification and preserve affordable housing.

The designer park promises hammock groves, waterfalls, cafes, and more. It will be elevated, spanning the Anacostia River and supported by old bridge piers left behind when the new 11th Street Bridge was replaced in 2013. Despite the high-end amenities, the project “seeks to become an anchor for equitable development in our nation’s capital,” Kratz said. BBAR has worked to funnel investment into housing; workforce development; small businesses; and “cultural equity.” He said 78 renters in Ward 8 have purchased homes as part of the project’s Ward 8 Home Buyers Club. And as Street Sense Media reported in June, the Douglass Community Land Trust created by the group made its first purchase: a 65-unit apartment building in Congress Heights.

The Bridge Park’s design strategies will increase connectivity between those living on both sides of the Anacostia River, but more must be done to ensure that residents and small businesses nearby will continually benefit from the success of this signature new civic space. Through partnerships with a number of local nonprofits, the Bridge Park is now implementing these equitable development strategies with over $56 million of direct investments going into the community; these dollars nearly match the capital costs of building the Bridge Park.

“D.C. has the right set of tools to address the affordable housing crisis,” Crawford said. “But it needs to fully invest in its affordable housing production and preservation programs, and expand access to rental assistance, to meet the needs of these families.”

Sabiyha Prince, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University, said housing policy improvements are necessary to address present economic and political realities. She plainly blamed the housing crisis on “bad policy and the legacies of inequality,” saying the many effects of institutional racism could not be underestimated.

“Communities have to be made whole by having their overarching vulnerabilities addressed and this goes beyond housing policy,” Prince said. “These challenges have to be met by a whole different set of policies that target wealth and income disparities,

health and education, and the range of impacts caused by the stress of living in the most gentrified city in the United States.”

Like the physical infrastructure provided by housing, Prince highlighted the role of social infrastructure: personal networks that become safety nets in times of need. Whether made up of family or friends, these networks play a large role in preventing people from being pushed out of their homes. She said that while doing field research she witnessing neighbors coming in to check on fellow neighbors and offering to get items from the store.

But the social networks of low-income and working-class people in D.C. are thinning out, Prince warned. She attributed this to more people in those income ranges find themselves unable to afford the rent.

Prince stressed the need to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions and any potential conflicts of interest that may influence those decisions.

“I hope everyone who attended continues to raise their voices and compel the city council and Congress to act to address housing affordability issues in the District,” Arbuckle wrote in an email after the event.

After the mostly prepared remarks, Norton listened to what audience members had to say. Recommendations were wide ranging. A resident recommended bringing back the Tenant Assistance Program and lamented that the Area Median Income for D.C. is high, at about $70,000 per year. A concerned gentlemen questioned the rising costs of real estate, banking fees and taxes and advocated that something be done to make home ownership affordable. A woman pointed out that even professionals are struggling, noting that a college professor came to her and said, “I cannot afford to be here.” She pointed out that it’s getting worse and said the next generation will find it ever harder to purchase a home. The audience agreed with loud applause.

Most people brought up commonly proposed solutions. However, one resident recommended we something new: looking at a program in Pittsburgh that involves reducing property tax.“It sounds weird,” he said, “but that actually made costs go down.”

A woman said programs supporting affordable housing in her neighborhood could have a ripple effect. She thought the city made a mistake when it bought two buildings and gave them to the University of the District of Columbia. In her opinion, the city missed a golden opportunity to fulfill a commitment to build affordable housing.

Several audience members recommended solutions from more than 20 years ago. Earlier in the event, the National Low Income Housing Coalition representative had looked back as far as 40 years ago.

“The upside to all of this is that we know what will solve this crisis,” Arbuckle said during the forum. “Historically speaking, we saw a dramatic rise in homelessness and housing poverty following President Richard Nixon’s moratorium on federal housing programs in 1973, and then another rise during the Reagan administration as he slashed federal housing program budgets as well.”

He compared those increases to a 14 percent decrease in homelessness from 2010 to 2016 that was attributed in large part to federal Housing First policies under the Obama administration.

Congresswoman Norton seemed most interested in the Pittsburgh solution. She said she’ll have her office look into it and will request that the D.C. government do the same.