The Long Wait for Affordable Housing

Peter Whatley

“The D.C. government can solve the housing crisis!” Elizabeth Falcon, Housing for All campaign organizer, shouted to the congregation of homeless advocates at a Lamont Park affordable housing teach-in.

She and other activists took the stage June 24 with calls to city officials to respond to the need for more affordable housing. During in-depth issue discussions, panelists stressed they see the real antagonist of affordable housing as gentrification. c

Another consequence of the gentrification has been the loss of shelters in Northwest Washington in recent years.

Advocates spoke of the 2010 closure of La Casa, a bilingual homeless shelter in Columbia Heights that was bulldozed to make way for upscale development at a prime location on Irving Street, next to the Columbia Heights Metro station. La Casa which housed 90 people a night for more than 20 years, had been opened in response to an influx of Spanish-speaking people in the area who needed emergency shelter.

They also recalled the 2008 closing of the Franklin School shelter, located in an historic 19th century school building on Franklin Square Park in Northwest Washington. The building, which formerly provided emergency shelter beds to men, has not been remodeled for other use; it lies vacant. Homeless advocates, including public interest lawyer Jane Zara have fought to get the shelter reopened.

Zara, who attended the teach-in, said policymakers pit permanent supportive housing advocates against homeless advocates but Zara stresses she sees both as important. Shelters and affordable housing are necessarily linked, she said, and need to coexist.

Advocates did credit the city council for its work to increase the availability to affordable housing through inclusionary zoning, which requires all new housing developments to include some affordable housing units. However, it was not until December 27, 2010, after the closing of the two shelters that inclusionary zoning took effect.

Advocates said Former Mayor Adrian Fenty stalled the law. Ward 1 City Council member Jim Graham agreed in an interview. “The problem was, the mayor was moving very slowly on implementing the law,” he said.

Last year’s annual report of IZ showed no new units and only two projects currently underway. Elinor Hart, from the Housing for All campaign, said at the teach-in that the impact of the law might be seen next year.

Graham too said he is optimistic about the impact that IZ can have on the community.

“We think it’s a very important part of the city’s arsenal of tools to deal with affordable housing,” he said.

The Department of Housing and Community Development now oversees IZ, but the mayor still holds some responsibilities such as advertising the units. The District of Columbia Housing Authority is in charge of placing qualifying residents into the units.

Housing Authority Director of Public Affairs Dena Michaelson said that about 60,000 people are on the waiting list for affordable housing, all trying to get one of the 8,000 units for public housing or one of the 12,000 units of subsidized housing. Waiting time varies. The list of 60,000 names reflects everyone who has applied in recent years. The housing authority periodically reviews the list and ranks the applicants according to need. Applicants who are homeless or rent-burdened (paying more than half their income on rent) or live in an unlivable home are given the first priority. But getting into the pool does not mean that you will have a house tomorrow; you have to wait for one to open up.

“If you are in a pool for a three-bed-room apartment, I can’t tell you if it will be a month or a year,” Michaelson said

The housing authority is well aware of the increased demand for housing. Michaelson said that the agency has doubled the number of Section 8-subsidized housing vouchers since 2000, but it has not been enough to keep up with the demand. Since the economic crash in 2008, the government has been overwhelmed with people looking for help.

The will is present in government officials and activists. The only problem is finding a way for everything to come together to better serve the community. The question remains: Can the government solve the housing crisis?

Issues |Housing

Region |Washington DC

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