Group Establishes Tent City, Protests Lack of Affordable Housing

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Members of a grass roots organization determined to make affordable housing more accessible to District resident are taking Mayor Adrian Fenty to task. They say two years ago he promised to build some 94 units from $7.8 million of city funding.

According to Rosemary Ndubuizu, a coordinator for the tent city set up this past weekend on a vacant public lot – also known as Parcel 42 in downtown Washington − ONE DC has vowed not to leave the site at 7th and R streets until a satisfactory response is received from city officials.

“We anticipate going as long as we can to put out the message that we shall not be moved and that affordable housing needs to be specifically defined for people who make less than $50,000 annually,” said Ndubuizu. “We think that the resources being used now for affordable housing [aren't] necessarily getting to the root cause of the acute housing crisis that’s affecting low-income residents.”

Ndubuizu said about 100 people participated in the tent city event, which was preceded on July 9 with a block party in the area. A press conference was held to explain why the organization took over Parcel 42.

Ndubuizu said Parcel 42 “was a promised community benefit agreement” upon which housing was to have been developed for residents with incomes of about “$25,000 to $50,000.”

A CNN poll revealed last year that the average cost of homes in the District was around $380,000, and that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,100.

According to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, the generally accepted definition of affordable housing is when residents pay no more than 30 percent of their annual income for accomodations. The agency further states that families who pay more than 30 percent for housing are considered “cost burdened” and may have difficulty affording food, clothing, transportation and medical care.

For the past four years ONE DC has championed the need for adequate housing for “no- to low-income families” in the nation’s capital. Ndubuizu said the group believed it scored a victory in 2008 when the mayor agreed to develop new homes with city subsidies.

But the city had a different view on what was defined as affordable housing, Ndubuizu said. “To have the Fenty administration tell it, affordable housing is providing for people whose income exceeds $60,000 a year."

Dominic Moulden, a member of Organizing Neighborhood Equity, added that taking over Parcel 42 would be ONE DC’s first act of consistent efforts to occupy public property until the city government changes its policy on affordable housing. “The critical issue is that 35,000 people are currently on waiting lists looking for publicly subsidized housing,” Moulden said. “At this time, the Fenty policy has failed to address the issue that while half of the city makes less than $35,000 a year, affordable housing is being built for people who make $60,000 and above.”

Ndubuizu said the city’s housing crisis was acute for several reasons and chief among them is the definition of affordable housing. “For one thing, the definition is too broad and not necessarily focusing on the fact that low-income families are paying over half of their income on housing,” she said. “We think that is another sign that city subsidies are not helping or are not going as far and not reaching as deep as they could.”

Fenty’s office was contacted for comment but had not responded by press time.
Meanwhile, the District of Columbia Housing Authority owns and operates 8,000 units under its public housing program and supplies 11,000 federal vouchers as well as 750 city-funded vouchers that assist residents with rental properties.

Spokeswoman Dena Michaelson said she was only vaguely familiar with the efforts of ONE DC. She said her agency provides a subsidy to about 10 percent of the city’s population that offers affordable accommodations through both public housing and vouchers.

“We’ve been actively working the last couple of years to increase the number of public housing units and affordable housing communities,” Michaelson said, “and we’ve also partnered with a large number of nonprofits to get about 1,000 new units that are affordable – and which have services such as counseling to go along with them,” through the local rent supplement program which was launched three years ago.

Michaelson said that in addition, the Authority is currently working with HUD through the Replacement Factor Funds program to establish other housing initiatives aimed at low-income residents. “I believe that we’re up to about 1,040 units that are city funded and that are now either in use or under production” as far as ongoing efforts to ease the problem, she said.

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