In Washington, D.C., as with cities across the country and around the world, luxury redevelopments are subsidized by taxpayer money. In other words, private developers receive public land and money, owned and generated by working people in order to build unaffordable, luxury redevelopments from which they profit. Meanwhile, the working people who subsidize and make developers' wealth possible are forced to live on the streets, face housing burdens, or pay ever-skyrocketing rents while their quality of life suffers immensely.
The transfer of public land, property and money to private developers is a regular practice in D.C. For example, the $95 million worth of public land that was handed to politically connected developer and known slumlord Geoff Griffis for $1 was part of a vast luxury development plan at the Wharf in Southwest Washington, D.C., including high-end restaurants and unaffordable housing supported in part by $300 million in taxpayer money.
Not only are there a litany of deals for developers that have long been exposed to the public, but more recently the first audit of the Housing Production Trust Fund that Mayor Bowser often brags about revealed chronic mismanagement and potential fraud.
The fact that housing policy is formulated to further the interests of profit-driven developers is the reason why public housing like that at Montana Terrace in Washington, D.C., is neglected and its tenants treated inhumanely. Rather than subsidizing private developers, the city could be directing public money to support the health, safety and economic security of the people who generate that same public money by paying taxes.
Justice First's aim with this newsletter is to expose a highly organized economic and political system that consistently puts the profit interests of private corporations over the human needs of the people. The D.C. housing struggles exemplify the blatant corruption, collusion and fundamental inequity of a system organized around money rather than around people.
Montana Terrace Update
Justice First will continue to feature a weekly update on the living conditions of two families at Montana Terrace, a public housing property in Northeast Washington, D.C., managed by the D.C. Housing Authority. Reporting on Montana Terrace began two weeks ago with interviews that exposed mold, infestation and depression -- the result of a combination of public housing neglect by the Housing Authority and the city-wide affordable housing crisis perpetuated by the city's housing policies which serve developers' interests.
Last week was our second update on the status of the families of Yahvon Early and Gretchen Helm, both of whom have suffered in slum conditions at Montana Terrace for years.
We are publishing updates on the status of Ms. Early and Ms. Helm and their units on a weekly basis, to demonstrate to the public the length of time and the unbelievable level of follow up and pressure required to force the city to act protect its own residents, whose health and safety has been greatly compromised.
7/12/2018 Update - Yahvon Early
Yahvon Early and her daughter were finally moved to a hotel pending a rehab of her unit, which the Housing Authority suggests will take two weeks. This action was taken by the Housing Authority after Ms. Early and her daughter endured conditions that resulted in a huge, gaping hole in the ceiling of her daughter's room, exposing mold and inviting infestation, as well as water leakages and damage throughout her unit. The ceiling collapse took place in early June and the move to a hotel took place just yesterday, over a month later, on July 11.
7/12/2018 Update - Gretchen Helm
Gretchen Helm and her young children remain trapped in a mold and mice infested unit, with holes throughout that make it impossible to stop rodents from coming in. This family remains in unsafe, poisonous conditions as they wait for more information from the D.C. Housing Authority. In response to an email inquiry to the Housing Authority from D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie's office, a Housing Authority representative replied: "Thank you so much for checking in regarding the concerns raised. DCHA staff is actively working with both families to assess and mitigate any hazards identified." As of today, July 12, Ms. Helm has confirmed that the Housing Authority has been silent and has failed to contact her or provide her with any additional information since July 2nd, when a mold inspector was sent to her unit.
Social Housing: Solving the Affordable Housing Crisis
In the United States, outrageous rents that cause hardship and burdens for the broad masses of working people are made possible by a private market controlled by profit-driven corporate entities and their political administrators.
Earlier this year, the People’s Policy Project released a paper, Social Housing in the United States, outlining a concept that could feasibly solve the affordable housing crisis by beginning the reorganization of the economy on the basis of human need, and creating a system in which housing is a human right.
While private market forces can only function as a means of transferring wealth from public to private entities, a viable alternative is publicly owned, publicly controlled, state-of-the-art social housing.
What are your thoughts or questions about social housing? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Video: LinkUp Interview with Neeka Sullivan, Brookland Manor Tenant
A video interview with Brookland Manor tenant Neeka Sullivan highlights the systemic attacks on working class communities, including the role of politicians in facilitating displacement and gentrification, and her take on the potential to organize and win a system to meet the needs of the people. The interview is accompanied by an article on the LinkUp blog surrounding the ongoing fight for affordable housing at Brookland Manor in Northeast Washington, D.C.
Click to watch the LinkUp interview with Brookland Manor tenant Neeka Sullivan.
Today's newsletter features an article by 23-year-old Washingtonian Breyuanna Campbell, in which she shares her perspective and direct experience with homelessness in the nation's capital. We also follow up on last week's exposure of the shocking neglect of public housing units and residents, including children, who continue to be subjected to slum conditions at Montana Terrace in Ward 5 of Northeast Washington, D.C.
Justice First's aim with this newsletter is to expose this highly organized economic and political order that systematically puts the profit interests of private corporations over the human needs of the people. The D.C. housing struggles below exemplify the blatant corruption, collusion and fundamental inequity of a system organized around money rather than around people.
Voices of the Youth: Breyuanna Campbell
I remember looking through the express papers, checking out rental prices for one and two bedroom apartments. I just knew that one day I would have my own place. Then, gentrification happened. It seemed like everything happened overnight. One day the city was affordable, the next day there were luxury condos all up and down H Street. With the developers working to increase their profits and attract wealthier populations rent prices have increased, making it hard for the average working D.C. resident to afford even a one bedroom. Even with the minimum wage increases, I still wouldn’t be able to afford my own apartment.
Being a native Washingtonian, you would think it would be easy for me - someone who has been here since birth - to be able to afford my own place. Unfortunately, with rising rents and luxury redevelopment plans rubber stamped by the D.C. Zoning Commission, D.C. residents and their families are being displaced from their homes. The resources of working people are limited and becoming more limited, while the cost of living continues to rise. When I left my Grandmother’s house back in 2015, I was 20 years old and had nothing but a few outfits and the clothes on my back. At the time all of the shelters in D.C. were full, leaving me to sleep in an abandoned house on 6th street, Northwest. From the abandoned house, to the 3rd street tunnel, to Nativity Women’s shelter, to Casa Ruby’s transitional living program. All of this while trying to maintain employment and pursue my college education. Day to day, I spent most of my time figuring out my next move. I think that was my motivation, focusing on what’s next. At times bouncing from place to place became stressful. Some days I wondered was it really worth it. On top of that, some of the programs that D.C. has set up for the homeless community are not properly operated. People would talk to us any kind of way. “You don’t have to be here, this is a shelter!” It was bad enough that I was going through a tough situation. The last thing I need is someone making me feel unwelcome.
It can be hard, especially on the younger generation. Since we are the “Future Leaders,” a lot of weight is being held over our shoulders. With the rents continually rising, who knows how much rent will be in D.C by the year 2020. So, what does that mean for the average young person living in D.C.? The average price for a one bedroom apartment in D.C ranges from $974-$1,998, a huge increase from the early 2000s. Youth will be forced to work 2-3 jobs just to afford a one bedroom apartment. This gives us no time to save for our future, because we have to spend all our money on housing. It also makes it hard for us to focus on other things such as education and family.
I believe this system is not designed to help the average person in America. The negative effect and damage comes from all sides - the justice system, the education system and the economic system all fail us. The economic system in place that is supposed to help families live out their true potential has clearly failed by letting developers take over major cities through gentrification projects that will make them money. Gentrification tears families apart, making it hard for parents to take care of their children because they have to pick up extra jobs just to afford housing. Children are being forced to stay home from school to watch younger siblings, leaving them with unexcused absences from school, which also hinders their education. These are things that I have experienced and witnessed as a young person in America. The government in America makes a lot of demands from its citizens. However, when will the government meet the demands and needs of its citizens who fund it through our tax dollars?
When I first experienced homelessness, I remember feeling so lost, I didn’t know what to do. I definitely didn’t know what to expect. I am now 23 years old. Three years after I became homeless, I was able find temporary housing on campus at Trinity University, where I attend college. I am still looking for permanent housing, and I know when my schooling is complete, this will be a difficult task. In the meantime, I have become active in making a change, not only for myself, but for those around me, too. I was introduced to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, an organization that works to protect the rights of homeless citizens. Within that organization the group PPA (People Power Action) was formed and I became a member. The purpose of the group is to provide advocacy for people and families facing housing difficulties, to end displacement and predatory redevelopment plans, and also to create unity by having individuals come together sharing similar struggles. I am also an active volunteer with the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association and I show up to demonstrate my solidarity with tenants around D.C. who are fighting displacement.
Often, people with fewer resources, which includes many native Washingtonians, can be made to feel inferior compared to the new residents and wealth that has moved to D.C. We should not let anyone, regardless of race, money or power, take over our city and leave nothing for the working class. We have just as much power as they do, however, we need to stick together. Unity is the key to success. No one person can do it by themselves. In order to stop the housing crisis, D.C. residents should take a stand. We can no longer sit back and watch changes happen that don’t benefit residents as a whole. It’s time for Washingtonians all over to take a stand, as we fight for housing as a human right!
D.C. Housing Authority Continues to Keep Montana Terrace Tenants in Dangerous Conditions
Last week, we interviewed two public housing residents in Washington, D.C.: Yahvon Early and Gretchen Helm. The interviews revealed the dangerous, unsafe and slum-like conditions that they and their children continue to be subjected to as a result of the city's neglect and outright disregard of Montana Terrace, as with many other public housing properties across the city. Each week, we will provide an update of the status of Ms. Early and Ms. Helm, so as to demonstrate the processes that tenants have to go through in order to get urgent conditions addressed, due to inefficient existing systems that force public housing residents to endure unsafe living conditions, sometimes for years on end, despite many dozens of work orders submitted.
Update - Yahvon Early
The D.C. Housing Authority indicated on two separate occasions, June 21 and June 28, that it would follow up with Yahvon Early. On June 29, after living with a huge, gaping hole in her ceiling for about two weeks, Ms. Early finally received a visit from the property manager and her supervisor, as well as a third representative from the Housing Authority who assessed the damages, and informed her that they would need tear out the apartment and put her in a hotel for the duration of that process. They also assured her that they would get the mold assessed. They informed Ms. Early that the arrangements would be finalized on Monday, July 2. As of Friday, July 6, Ms. Early has heard nothing. Council member Kenyan McDuffie's office was informed by social media on Friday, June 29, at which point his staff requested an email. An email was sent to Kelley Cislo and Council Member Kenyan McDuffie on Monday, July 2, with a response and acknowledgment from their office received Friday, July 6. Two additional representatives from the D.C. Housing Authority also responded and stated that they would "look into the concerns raised and will be in touch with the residents to determine next steps." Ms. Early has received no information so far on next steps.
Update - Gretchen Helm
On Monday, July 2, three days after Justice First released Gretchen Helm's interview, the D.C. Housing Authority visited Ms. Helm's unit with a mold inspector. Neither the Housing Authority representative nor the mold inspector gave Ms. Helm any indication of when the results would be in, or when they would proceed with addressing the health and safety hazards inside her unit as a result of mold and rodent infestations. Council member Kenyan McDuffie's office was informed by social media on Friday, June 29, at which point his staff requested an email. An email was sent to Kelley Cislo and Council Member Kenyan McDuffie on Monday, July 2, with a response and acknowledgment from their office received Friday, July 6. Two additional representatives from the D.C. Housing Authority also responded and stated that they would "look into the concerns raised and will be in touch with the residents to determine next steps." Ms. Helm has received no information so far on next steps.
In Washington, D.C. where we have $2.4 billion in reserves - a city with too much money - its own Housing Authority is given the green light to neglect public housing, even while residents across the city are poisoned by biotoxins and robbed of their ability to have a decent quality of life. The D.C. Housing Authority is slow to act, if at all. In fact, as made clear by both Yahvon Early and Gretchen Helm's cases, residents might go for years and even decades living in abhorrent conditions so long as they fall under the radar. At Justice First we maintain that there is no reason whatsoever that we cannot have state-of-the art, well maintained public housing. We must continue to organize and demand a system that prioritizes our basic human needs, one of which is housing, for the protection of youth, families and all people.
Committee on Housing & Community Development Agency Performance Oversight Hearing
Thursday, February 26, 2015
My name is Eugene Puryear and I am testifying on behalf of the organization Justice First that, among other things, is working in conjunction with the Alabama Ave./13th St. Tenants Coalition in their effort to prevent their displacement as a result of a planned development at the Congress Heights Metro Station. I open by highlighting this case because it is highly indicative of the problems surrounding the entirely inadequate creation of housing that is affordable to District residents regardless of income.
Some of these issues are “macro” and extend far beyond this hearing.
The tide of gentrification across the District now means that the median rent is more than $1,400. A family needs to earn $27 per hour to afford a two-bedroom market-rate apartment. The current minimum wage ($8.25) is only 30 percent of the needed wage, and even the minimum wage increase coming in 2016 ($11.50) is only 42 percent of the housing wage. Currently, rent control is limited to buildings built before 1976 – a rapidly shrinking set of units. This lack of real rent control has had serious consequences. Between 2000 and 2010, median rents increased by 50 percent. In the same period, half of all low-cost rental units were lost, while the number of high-cost units tripled. To put this even further in context, the lowest-income 40 percent of D.C. households have seen essentially no change in income. Specifically for renters, the average income has also remained virtually unchanged.
The true meaning of “affordable” housing is very muddled. Affordable housing is determined via relationship to area median income (AMI), which measures not just the District, but many of the wealthy surrounding counties, distorting measures of affordability. The current AMI in the District is $107,500. Practically, this means even a lot of “affordable” units remain out of reach for those with the greatest need and the most significant burden in housing costs.
In short, we have too few well-paying jobs combined with a market that creates primarily only units aimed towards high-income earners and ultimately the long-terms needs of their capital investors, which needless to say are based on their own rate of return and not the housing needs of District residents.
Further, the funds provided for affordable housing are abysmally low. The District has a Housing Production Trust Fund, which has received roughly $100 million per year (the baseline for appropriate funding according to many housing activists) over the last three years. But historically, this Trust has produced fewer than 1,000 units for families earning under $32,250 per year, meeting less than 2 percent of the need. That’s fewer than 1,000 units for 60,000 families!
There are currently 71,000 people on the public housing waiting list. To house them would cost an estimated $2.3 billion. $1.3 billion of that would upgrade our existing public housing stock and ensure our residents in public housing have safe, livable and comfortable accommodations. Currently, however, no substantial sum is being appropriated to upgrade or build public housing units. Instead, the District is continuing efforts to reduce the number of public housing units, and in fact allows hundreds to sit vacant.
With challenges like these DHCD has to husband its money somewhat carefully to get maximum impact. This is why I highlighted the Congress Heights tenants because the situation there absolutely deserves answers from DHCD as to their behavior.
The project includes one building currently not owned by those proposing the current development. Currently, this building has a 40-year covenant requiring all units to be affordable for extremely low-income tenants. And while the current owner of that building received almost $1 million in a loan from the District government, the building still remains vacant. No money has been repaid on that loan, nor has the owner paid any taxes. Despite the dire need for affordable housing, and the outstanding loan, it is our understanding that the District is preparing to sell the building very cheaply and wave the affordability covenant – essentially allowing anything to be built in its stead, namely the smaller, market-rate units that Sanford Capital is proposing. These units would be unaffordable to the vast majority of Congress Heights residents.
Not only are these facts alone quite distressing, but the parties involved have long-checkered histories with the District and its agencies. One partner in this deal is Sanford Capital. Sanford is known very well to DHCD. In another Southeast apartment complex, Terrace Manor, Sanford signed an agreement with a tenants association in exchange for the association’s right to purchase the building, then promptly reneged. It has not implemented any of the repairs or improvements promised, has maintained poor conditions, and has evicted half of the building’s residents. Sanford has failed to repay a District loan, pleading poverty, while simultaneously trying to sell the building. Sanford has a reputation for this – buying low-income buildings under false pretenses, refusing to maintain them in livable condition, and then trying to sell in order to dodge their obligations and line their pockets. This is classic slumlord behavior. DHCD is trying to force Sanford to sell because of its actions.
So one must ask why on earth would DHCD would even consider facilitating a deal with Sanford Capital, whose recent track record shows their willingness to game District agencies and low-income residents for their own profits? Further, CityPartners, headed by Geoffrey Griffis, is also a party to this deal. Mr. Griffis has his own history of corruption while he was a member of the Board of Zoning Adjustment, enough of a history that this body, the D.C. Council, rejected him when he was proposed as a member of the Zoning Commission. Further, as is outlined in the WAMU series “deals for developers,” Mr. Griffis was a part of a very unsavory deal that transferred millions of dollars’ worth of District-owned land for $1 dollar.
On top of all of this, in documents procured through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, one DHCD employee stated to another: “I looked through the coupon book and now I see what this deal is all about.” The implication there is clear: that cases like these with sweetheart deals for slumlords may not be that rare.
We need serious answers on these questions:
- Does DHCD consider past history of ethical and legal malfeasance in considering who they work with? If not, why would they knowingly facilitate developments that could harm current and future tenants?
- What is the current status of 3200 13th St. SE (the building at issue)? Do they plan to waive the previous affordability covenant? Do they plan to forgive all or part of the outstanding loan? What steps are being taken to recoup the District’s investment and sanction the current owner for wasting taxpayer money?
- What is the “coupon book”?
- Given the facts regarding the history of the proposed developers and their current abysmal treatment of current tenants, will they reconsider any involvement with the current Planned Unit Development?
I want to end by restating the point made at the beginning of this testimony: There is not even close to enough money appropriated to house all those who need housing. In Justice First, we believe housing is a human right, not a privilege. This committee needs to use its oversight powers to suss out the key obstacles to an aggressive plan — in the billions of dollars — to put a roof over everyone’s head. Literally billions are given out each year in tax breaks as advocacy group ONE DC points out; however, in the past 10 years, the District gave $1.7 billion to developers, and this amount could have housed every family making less than $32,250 (30 percent of area median income) — 60,000 families — for more than two years. This quite frankly is just the tip of the iceberg for misused public funds, like $100 million for a soccer stadium.
While developers get free money from the District, tenants — like those at Congress Heights — get abused, neglected and displaced. This is a sign that the entire system we have created to allegedly provide affordable housing is entirely broken.
Demand that the D.C. Council commit $50 million of affordable housing funds to Limited Equity Housing Cooperatives
There is an affordable housing crisis in D.C. The District continuously chooses corporate development over the needs of its residents. The effects of this gentrification are astounding.
Between 2000 and 2010, our median rent increased by 50 percent. We lost half of all low-cost rental units, while the number of high-cost units tripled.
Rent control policy does little to quell this surge. It only applies to buildings built before 1976 – a rapidly shrinking set of units – and pretty much ensures a return of 10 percent to landlords. It isn’t tied to actual cost-of-living increases, or to actual wages.
We need real affordable housing. A family needs to earn $27 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rate. Our minimum wage currently is $8.25 per hour. We must preserve and create true affordable housing.
Affordable housing is tied to area median income (AMI). But our AMI is distorted since it measures not just the District, but many of the wealthy surrounding counties. In D.C., as long as housing is accessible to families making $65,000 per year, it is “affordable.”
This means as long as rent is $19,500 per year – $1,625 per month – a unit is “affordable.”
The general rule is that you shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of your income on rent, but the median rent in D.C. is now $1,400 per month.
We currently have 71,000 people on the public housing waiting list.
District policies must change. Too often, the District government uses housing funds to pay developers, rather than to preserve, upgrade or build new units for residents.
We have tens of thousands on waiting lists for affordable housing, but hundreds of units sit vacant. Housing everyone would cost an estimated $2.3 billion. Simply upgrading our current stock would cost $1.3 billion.
The District claims there is no budgetary solution, but over the last 10 years it gave $1.7 billion to developers. That would have housed 60,000 families for more than two years.
We can make a real difference – now. Currently, housing policy in the District is developed ad hoc, without a consistent and focused plan. We need not only significant investment, but also investment that is targeted for those most in need.
Instead of using funds to pay developers, the District needs to earmark portions of those funds to affordable housing for projects and programs that will make a big impact.
Limited Equity Housing Cooperatives (LEHCs) present one of the most powerful tools we have. They are cost-effective ways to preserve affordable housing (an average development cost of under $165,000 per unit). Yet, funding for LEHCs has fallen sharply.
LEHCs provide long-term affordable housing stock, and turn tenants into owners of their units, improving their economic position over time.
Join us to demand the Council commit $50 million of affordable housing funds to LEHCs. The money is there, it’s even already committed to housing. We just want it to go to residents.
There are many actions the District can take to support affordable housing. I call on the D.C. government to take some very specific steps:
- Increase funding for Limited Equity Housing Cooperatives
- At least double funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund
- Strengthen rent control laws
- Build more public housing
- Finalize the rules for the District Opportunity to Purchase Act, a law the District has on the books that can protect and expand affordable housing
The District's current housing policies are not working for the poor and working people in D.C. We need a grassroots movement to fight back. Justice First believes housing is a right; no one should be denied access to shelter, certainly not in one of the richest cities in the richest country on earth.
So where does Justice First fit?
Justice First recognizes that this is a fight that will take a lot to win. The statistics show that District policies are totally backward. We believe housing is a right; no one should be denied access to shelter, certainly not in one of the richest cities in the richest country on earth.
We can have a big impact:
Tenants facing displacement can lean on Justice First as a resource in the fight to protect their rights. Whether it is preparation to deal with District boards and agencies, building support amongst neighbors and D.C. residents, or holding rallies and press conferences, we are here to help. Our organizers work directly with tenants to empower and support the struggle.
Fighting for Rent Control
Rent control is critical and more advocacy is needed to change decades-old policies. Justice First is engaged in a district-wide campaign to demand that rent control be determined not by a set multi-year formula but instead be based on real annual increases in the cost-of-living and wage realities.
As we fight gentrification and displacement, we also promote and produce materials on alternatives, like Limited Equity Housing Cooperatives to create affordability and ownership, a D.C. Public Bank to leverage District dollars, and District investment in priorities for residents – like housing – as opposed to contributing to the dividend payments of Wall Street banks.
Building long-term empowerment
We recognize that the issues are not only broad but ongoing and ever-changing. As such we are a membership organization that brings together people who believe that housing is one of the basic rights people should have. We are building an infrastructure, and a culture of organizing to confront a myriad of challenges in housing and other areas of the lives of working-class and low-income District residents.