Passionate testimony fills 4-hour Housing Task Force hearing
Individual tenants and representatives of large organizations alike spoke about their experiences with District housing policy at a hearing on Monday. Those testifying overwhelmingly reflected the need for more affordable housing. Many spoke about the Housing Production Trust Fund, which is successful but starved for money, and the Housing First program to combat homelessness.
The hearing started with a packed room, with well over 100 people in attendance. The most touching testimonies drew heartfelt responses from the audience, such as when Gilma Merino, a Jubilee tenant with a visual impairment, had her testimony read by her school-aged son.
A tenant recognized long-time housing organizer and advocate Linda Leaks for her help in the creation of their housing cooperative, drawing loud applause. Although energy dwindled in the long hearing, many stayed for hours for a chance to speak or to listen and support others.
Resident Tom Gregory articulated concerns that landlords are able to profit unfairly in the housing market. Cheryl Cort, from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, argued for better use of public lands for affordable housing. Denice Speed, a Ward 7 resident at Marbury Plaza, spoke out for low income tenants. And Monica Buitrago read the testimony of Nathan Moon, an HIV positive tenant at 1111 Massachusetts Ave. who was unable to attend, and whose tenant association had worked to purchase the property when it was sold. Other participants spoke out about their success as first time homeowners, their concerns that public housing might be lost, and their desire for housing at all income levels.
Housing Production Trust Fund has successes, needs funding
Many talked about the Housing Production Trust Fund, like Marilyn Kresky-Wolff, Executive Director of Open Arms Housing. She called for the trust fund to keep enabling the housing programs we have to create successful programs like Open Arms, which serves chronically homeless women.
A tenant leader speaking through an interpreter also referenced the Trust Fund. His tenant association had hoped to maintain their housing as affordable through the tenant purchase process, but insufficient funds in the Trust Fund made it financially impossible, even though they had nonprofits who were interested in working with them. Blaise Rastello from Transitional Housing Corporation encouraged city leaders to use major projects like Walter Reed to help fill the trust fund.
It's unsurprising the trust fund got a lot of attention. Low funding levels in recent years has starved the trust fund. One of the task force's 5 working groups, "Rethinking Local Funding," has the task of looking specifically at funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund.
Housing First has made a difference in its short existence
Another highlighted program was Housing First, officially known as Permanent Supportive Housing. One of DC's smallest and newest programs, this program targets the chronically homeless with housing and wrap-around services. According to Jean Badalamenti of Miriam's Kitchen, "the District made great strides toward ending chronic homelessness when it launched the permanent supportive housing program in 2008."
John McDermott, who also testified at the hearing, was one of many people who benefited from the Housing First program. He spoke about how, before being diagnosed with major illnesses, he had worked and made a good living. Now he was thankful to the city for the support that he had gotten. But that wasn't enough. Like many others, he spoke out for more funding to address the unmet housing needs in the District. "We need an equal and balanced approach," he said. "[Where] everyone who needs housing can get it."
Task force considering many housing issues for January report
The 35 members of the Task Force represent an array of housing specialists from government, nonprofits, and for-profit organizations, all appointed by the mayor. Harry Sewell, director of the DC Housing Finance Agency and task force co-chair, hopes to have recommendations from to Mayor Gray by January so that the mayor's office can consider their report as it prepares the Fiscal Year 2014 budget.
Sewell began the hearing a presentation of data the task force has collected and a video, entitled "Miracle at East Lake," about a public housing project in Atlanta became mixed-income housing, leading to lower crime and improved education outcomes.
The group is considering a wide range of housing issues, and has posted online a lot of useful data.
The task force has a second hearing scheduled for November 14. Although they have not yet set the location, it will be somewhere east of the Anacostia River.
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