D.C. Seeks to Improve Its Comprehensive Plan

Cross-Posted from Street Sense
by Ashley Clarke

The D.C. Office of Planning is amending the Comprehensive Plan, a long-standing document that outlines priorities for D.C.’s future growth and change. In a statement from the Office of Planning, Director Eric Shaw encouraged residents to read the Comprehensive Plan and make suggestions for changes.

“‘Planning an Inclusive City’ is the guiding vision for the DC Comprehensive Plan. An inclusive city is one where every member of the community feels welcome wherever they are in the city, and where everyone has a fair and equitable opportunity to live a healthy, successful and fulfilling life,” Edward Geifer, associate director of the Office of Planning, wrote in an email to Street Sense.

A heterogeneous coalition was born out of the Office of Planning’s call to the public.  Community organizations, for-profit and nonprofit developers, faith groups, tenant advocates and other local organizations have formed a loose coalition of interested parties to identify priorities for creating more affordable housing and community support for under-resourced communities in D.C.  The coalition met over several months to reach an agreement on a series of priorities that are listed on their website at www.DCHousingpriorities.org.Comprehensive-Plan-Timeline-717x422

According to the 2016 annual census done by the D.C. Council on Homelessness,  8,350 people experience homelessness on any given night in the city.  Coalition members want to see growth in the city but also want the Office of Planning to know that growth does not mean pushing marginalized people further to the margins.

“It is possible to build new housing, including a good measure of affordable housing, and grow the District’s tax base in a way that makes business sense and advances the public good. The result can be a combination of new housing and amenities for residents and increased revenue for the city so it can continue to enhance quality of life,” said Aakash Thakkar in the a news release. Thakkar is the senior vice president of EYA, a real estate development firm that is part of the coalition.

Coalition  members believe that more affordable housing and targeted support for D.C. communities should be in the Comprehensive Plan.  Philip Stump-Kennedy told Street Sense that Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) joined the coalition in hopes of using the Office of Planning as a tool for their mission. Stump-Kennedy is the regional tenant organizing manager at LEDC. He said he is tasked with the preservation of affordable housing in D.C, which is one of the priorities the coalition wants addressed. He referred to the lack of affordable housing in D.C. and said it is important that subsidized housing like Section 8 housing is maintained in the District.

Stump-Kennedy also believes rent control is an important part of affordable housing preservation. The rest of the coalition agrees and lists the protection of tenants as a priority. Stump-Kennedy said that the LEDC focuses on organizing tenants, connecting them with attorneys and other tenant associations. Stump-Kennedy said there is strength in numbers and organization.

“We need policies that preserve the affordable housing we already have as the District develops. It’s clear the city needs more units to meet the demand of the people coming here, but we also need strategies to protect tenants who are struggling to stay in the city. Those goals don’t have to be in conflict,” said Rob Wohl, a tenant organizer for the LEDC, in a news release.

The coalition members believe that the development of affordable housing and equitable economics requires the participation of all D.C. communities in order to move toward a solution. A full list of organizations and businesses in support of the D.C. housing priorities can be found on their webpage.

Residents can get involved by signing up for updates at plandc.dc.gov and submitting proposed amendments during the open call period for amendments.

Will the District’s Budget Recognize the Struggles of Low-Income Residents?

Cross-posted from the Washington Post

Eviction “is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty,” argues sociologist Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. A recent report released from the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers suggests that the two — seemingly intractable poverty and the struggle for safe, affordable housing — are inextricably linked here in the District. Housing instability and the fear of homelessness are the greatest worries of our most vulnerable neighbors.

But that list of anxieties is long, according to this new report. We dubbed the nearly three-and-a-half year undertaking that led to its issuance the “Community Listening Project” because we wanted to capture more than just impersonal data on the needs of individuals living in poverty. We wanted to hear about the problems they face and the strengths of their communities in their words.

Led by Faith Mullen, a clinical law professor, and Enrique Pumar, a sociologist, both at the Catholic University of America, the study is an exhaustive, qualitative analysis of focus group and survey responses from more than 700 D.C. residents whose household incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. (By 2013, roughly 228,300 people, or 35 percent of the District’s population, met this standard.) Its findings paint an illuminating, complex portrait of the lives of those among us struggling, and too often failing, to make ends meet.

Survey participants reported difficulty satisfying basic needs. Two-thirds worried about finding and maintaining adequate, stable shelter, and one in three said that keeping a roof over their heads was the most serious challenge they experienced in the past two years. Those who had housing reported enduring horrendous conditions — lack of heat or hot water, broken appliances, electrical hazards, mold, rodents — just to stay in it.

“There was a leak on the roof for two years that ruined my furniture,” said one survey participant. “I want to move out but can’t afford to.” Like so many others we met through the project, she undoubtedly knew if she gave up this home, she may never find another that fit her budget. And that meant she might end up with no home at all. Who knows where a complaint to the landlord or withholding rent might lead, but it usually isn’t worth the chance. Affordable housing in the District is too scarce.

Food insecurity is also a profound problem for D.C. residents living in or on the cusp of poverty. Almost half of survey participants reported “frequently” or “occasionally” worrying about whether they would have enough food for themselves and their families. Full-time employment was no insulation from these hardships; large numbers of working adults (and their children) experienced anxiety over food and housing.

Jobs remain elusive. Those that are open seem unattainable to the people who most need work. “I can’t find a job,” said one survey participant, “because I have no place to live, no place to get ready for an interview and no money to get to an interview.” These bleak realities, however, don’t keep those who are unemployed from continuing to try: Many survey participants who were homeless identified finding work — not housing — as their greatest challenge.

Continue reading Will the District’s Budget Recognize the Struggles of Low-Income Residents?

DC Council Votes to Lower the Legal Standard for new Family Shelters: “What’s wrong with us?”

Cross-Posted from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless
Written by Patricia Mullahy Fugere

DCGENERALLast week, the DC Council voted 9-4 against requiring that the new DC General replacement shelters have private bathrooms. Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced an amendment requiring private bathrooms for every unit, and Councilmembers McDuffie, Silverman, and Orange supported it. Councilmembers Mendelson, Grosso, Bonds, Nadeau, Evans, Todd, Allen, Alexander and May voted against Cheh’s amendment. Instead, they voted for Chairman Mendelson’s “compromise”— an amendment that mandates that just 10% of the new units have private bathrooms and that there be one family bathroom for every five units. The issue was not, as some characterized it, about whether or not to close DC General. The Mayor and Council had previously committed to closing DC General, and this bill does not speak to nor require its closure. The debate was about what the minimal legal standards should be for the six new shelters that will replace DC General. Right before the vote on Councilmember Cheh’s amendment, she grew exasperated and said “Spend a little more money for dignity and safety! What’s wrong with us?” We need to stop and think about this question before we can move forward.

We do believe that there’s something wrong with the Council’s failure to require that each shelter room have its own bathroom. Our position, that private bathrooms are necessary to protect the health, safety, and dignity of homeless families, remains unchanged. We got our marching orders from our years of working with families sheltered in communal settings, and from a recent survey we did with 53 homeless families. We heard our clients and affected community members loud and clear when they said private bathrooms are critical in shelter to protect their own and their children’s physical and emotional health and safety. The “compromise” could require 90% of families to share residential bathrooms with strangers, shifting the balance almost entirely away from the expressed needs of the affected community.

We do believe there’s something wrong with the Council’s vote last Tuesday, not only because the legislation as passed could have serious, negative repercussions for homeless families for decades to come, but because it signifies that 9 out of 13 DC Councilmembers abdicated two essential responsibilities of the legislative branch of government when they failed to listen to the needs of the affected community and failed to exercise independent decision-making to enact sound public policy.Kids Need Privacy Too

The entire process leading up to the Council’s vote was structured in a way that excluded the voices of the affected community, from scheduling a hearing at 2PM on a weekday when parents had to pick up children from school, to refusing to allow families to testify earlier to accommodate their schedules, to an Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) process that didn’t include even one homeless family. When we attempted to remedy these omissions, by conveying survey results, the family input was derided as not “relevant” and we were asked if we had any “studies” or “experts” to back up what the families were saying. Our view is that the real experts on the harmful effects of shared bathrooms are the families who are living right now in shelters with shared bathrooms.

While there was broad agreement from affected community members, most advocates, and many members of the public that private bathrooms are critical in the new shelters, the Administration claimed an ever-shifting series of terrible consequences if the law required private bathrooms. And yet, in spite of repeated requests from the Council, the Administration never provided any demonstrable evidence of these consequences. Nevertheless, 9 out of 13 Council members simply took the Mayor’s word for it, at considerable expense to the health and safety of the District residents they were elected to serve. We believe there’s something wrong with that.

Our criticism is not just about bathrooms, not just about families, and not just about homelessness. It’s also about the judgments that are made and the “-isms” that bleed into conversations and decisions about policies affecting people experiencing poverty in DC. It’s about the way the Administration claimed that private bathrooms would make homeless families too “comfortable” even when their data supported the opposite conclusion. And the ease with which decision-makers put up barriers to democratic participation by homeless families. And the ease with which these families are blamed for their homelessness when institutional racism and the resulting disinvestment in poor black communities are far more powerful forces in creating homelessness in DC than any one individual’s decision-making. We believe there’s something wrong with that…and with us as a community that lets this happen.

We can do better. All of us. While the standard in the law for family shelters has been lowered, that doesn’t mean that Mayor Bowser cannot far exceed this floor—and she has promised to try to do so. As the process unfolds – as a design committee is convened, as buildings and sites are secured, as plans are drawn and construction begins – there are opportunities to do right by homeless families. We urge the Administration to find a meaningful way to engage families, seeking their input and not simply their feedback, at every step along the way. It’s up to us now—including the DC Council—to hold the Mayor to her promise to exceed the new lower standard in the law, and to root her decisions about shelter design in the input and stories of the people who will one day have to live in those shelters.

DC Displacement of the Poor: They Do What They Can Get Away With

Cross-Posted from Sociology in My Neighborhood: DC Ward Six
Written by Johanna Bockman

As many of you know, there is much discussion about the future of the DC General homeless shelter. This morning, the Post’s Petula Dvorak stated, “Developers are salivating over D.C. General. It’s a huge property with plenty of potential. So there’s no question that it will be shut down and sold. That part of the plan no one is worried about.” Mayor Gray is rightly calling to rehouse those at the DC General shelter before closing it, but his plan is based on an unfounded belief that private apartment owners will now come forward and house the hundreds of families at DC General at rents far below market rates. Thus, in the interests of “salivating” developers, hundreds of homeless people are going to be displaced again? DC General is District property and could be renovated, maybe even employing homeless or near-homeless workers, if the District wanted to do so. However, developers and homeowners in the area are working hard for the “revitalization” of the DC General area, which they see as requiring the removal of their homeless neighbors. The deterioration of DC General is required as proof of the need for “revitalization.”

Photo by Empower DC

A few weeks ago, I went to a great panel discussion, “Racism in the New DC,” organized by Empower DC, which spoke to these issues from a very refreshing perspective. The speakers were three public housing residents working to maintain public housing and public schools in DC (Marlece Turner, D. Bell, and Shannon Smith), as well as Dr. Sabiyha Prince (the author of African Americans and Gentrification in Washington, DC), Ron Hampton (a former police officer and activist against police abuse), and Post columnist Courtland Milloy.

The main takeaway from the panel discussion was that institutional racism (not individual racist people but a racist system) works based on the idea that brown and black people do not deserve as good things as white people do. Improvements in the city are made for white people both because they often have more money and also because they are seen as deserving better things, like better schools and better services.

I asked the panel about a recent Post article that had said that, “Almost 10 years after the District vowed to assure low-income residents in four areas that they wouldn’t be displaced if their neighborhoods were revitalized,” the District decided that this was “overly optimistic.” The District was considering a policy change to “no longer guarantee that residents have a right to stay in their neighborhoods, and the promise that existing public housing won’t be demolished until a new building is constructed to replace it would be abandoned.” Empower DC and others have been warning people about these false promises for some time.

So, I asked the panel, is this a new policy? or is this a statement of what the District was already doing? Courtland Milloy immediately said, “They do what they can get away with.” He explained that, when District officials made these promises, they had to to make their redevelopment plans and the destruction of public housing palatable. Earlier, Milloy had stated that we need to acknowledge institutional racism and that these “revitalization” policies are in the interest of property owners and not in the interests of the homeless and other poor DC residents.

How can we change the situation in which “They do what they can get away with”? As a start, we might recognize that the journalist’s statement “So there’s no question that it [DC General] will be shut down and sold. That part of the plan no one is worried about” is not a statement of fact but rather a statement supported by those who are interested in this outcome and “can get away with” it. It is a political statement in the battle over space in the District. The next step would be to support a range of policies, including permanent public housing and permanent affordable housing in the District.

The True Cost of Gentrification

cross-posted from the Washington Peace Letter
written by Will Merrifield

The exploding housing costs that have accompanied the influx of new residents into DC have brought mass displacement of life-long residents and a subsequent spike in family homelessness.  Currently, in the District, a person making minimum wage must work approximately 132 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, or earn $27 an hour at 40 hours per week to afford a 2 bedroom apartment at “Fair Market Rent”.

The reality of this housing market is that if you are a senior citizen on a fixed income, a person with a disability, or a low to medium wage worker, odds are, you cannot live in DC without some sort of housing subsidy or other support. In other words, there needs to be a way to fill the gap for these individuals between what they can spend on housing and the current market rate.

The most effective way to fill this gap is funding public housing and rent subsidy programs in the long term. Unfortunately, the District’s subsidized housing waitlist is currently closed and numbers approximately 70,000 households. While the number of low cost rental units has dropped by 50% since 2000, the number of rental units in the city costing more than median rent has tripled.  DC government claims these issues are due to a lack of resources and are largely out of their control.

However, while DC officials are telling the community that they do not have enough revenue to adequately invest in affordable housing, they are routinely sacrificing public resources in the interest of “smart growth.”

In the past year, plans to help DC’s soccer team, DC United, materialized. Mayor Gray proposed to trade away the Reeves Municipal Center, at 14th & U St. NW, in order to help the soccer team build a new stadium at Buzzard Point. In addition to the land swap, the city would put up about $150 million in tax incentives to acquire the property, trading the government building in a prime location and essentially absorbing the stadium’s financial risks through dubious tax deals.

The Reeves Center land swap that may occur in our city’s next mayoral term is just one example of the District’s subsidization of large-scale commercial developers to the tune of billions of dollars through real estate devaluations and public land giveaways.

Meanwhile, the city is taking in budget surpluses of over 100 million dollars each fiscal year. The city government is gambling our tax dollars in the interest of developers and building a city for people who do not yet live here, and likely will not stay.

The net result of these decisions can be seen on every street corner as market rate affordable units are being converted to luxury condos. These policies have led to the mass displacement and homelessness described above.

As of February 2014, there were 2,527 homeless children in DC Public Schools. That number excludes the countless families that are not technically homeless but instead rely on others to take them in night after night. Furthermore, these policies have the effect of dehumanizing and further marginalizing low to medium income residents of Washington, DC. This past winter,  the city completely ran out of shelter space and was housing families in rec centers, which is usually reserved for natural disasters. Essentially, the District is telling these residents that they are not wanted and have nothing to offer the City.

We as a community must take a stand to end this cycle of displacement. DC is not a playground for “young professionals”. Economic development that prioritizes amenities for these individuals over affordable housing is both unsustainable and immoral.

Change will not come from the top down. Real change will have to be led from the bottom up and must prioritize the needs and realities of the most marginalized and disaffected residents of the city. This change must start in community meeting spaces where residents can talk to one another with the ultimate goal of creating their own vision of DC and how it should develop in the future. It’s critical that organized communities and activist groups work to share more resources to strengthen the impact of these efforts.

Through this process directly impacted communities can develop their own leaders, create meaningful political coalitions and generate the necessary political will to make their vision a reality. But that process must start now and must be urgent.  As any minimum wage worker, disabled senior citizen, or recently homeless family can tell you- right now we are rapidly losing ground.

Will Merrifield works at the Washignton Legal Clinic for the Homeless as a staff attorney and serves on the Washington Peace Center’s Advisory Council

For the Full Peace Letter Click Here