Poverty Politics and Profit FRONTLINE PBS

Frontline Goes for Flash Over Substance in LIHTC Report

In a recent year-long investigation, Frontline PBS and NPR delved into the affordable housing industry. The result was Poverty, Politics and Profit, an hour-long documentary on PBS, as well as several pieces on NPR and on both organization’s websites. While drawing attention to the nation’s affordable housing crisis is an important goal, in their work PBS and NPR seriously misrepresent the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), a crucial tool for building affordable housing.

LIHTC works as a public-private partnership, and it was created under President Reagan as a replacement for the old system of government built public housing. It offers a tax credit to developers in exchange for building affordable housing. The developer then sells that tax credit to an investor to raise money for construction, with the resulting units required to remain affordable for 30 years.

The program has produced millions of units affordable to low-income families (14,000 in DC alone), and it enjoys widespread bipartisan support.

Over the past two decades LIHTC funding has grown considerably, from just over $4 billion in 1997 (inflation adjusted) to almost $7 billion in 2014. But during that time, the number of units produced each year has dropped from 70,000 to under 60,000. It’s a problem that’s worth looking into.

Unfortunately, this investigation was more interested in flashy anecdotes than a data driven analysis. Their work repeatedly refers to two cases of fraud found in south Florida, where developers embezzled a combined $38 million. Certainly, any level of fraud is too much, and it’s very possible that more federal oversight of LIHTC could be helpful.

But this represents a drop in the bucket of the program’s multi-billion-dollar budget. The PBS/NPR investigation found no other instances of fraud, and they uncovered no evidence pointing to wide-spread fraud in the industry.

The report also spends considerable time focusing on the commissions that investors and middle-men, called syndicators, make for their work. These payments are portrayed as a ballooning, shadowy industry, complete with images of men in suits laughing into their cocktails.

In fact, in recent decades increasing market competition has cut the rate of return for LIHTC investors by half. Since the mid-1990s, rates have gone from double digits to a more moderate 4 to 6 percent.

So why hasn’t increased money resulted in more LIHTC units? PBS and NPR actually covered all the major reasons in their reporting—albeit with significantly less gusto than the fraud and abuse angle.

Why more money is producing less units

1)      Rising construction costs: Over the same period the report considered, construction costs increased significantly faster than inflation. According to their own calculations, this alone accounts for 50 percent of the change in price per unit.

2)      Cuts in other federal funding: Affordable housing units often have multiple channels of subsidy, with more than one program helping to keep a unit affordable. Two of the biggest programs that supply this extra coverage, the federal HOME grant and the Community Development Block Grant, have been subject to painful cuts during the period in focus. This means that more LIHTC funding is needed for each unit to hit the same affordability levels.

3)      Deeper affordability: At the same time that other funding has been disappearing, officials have been making a push to make units affordable to lower-income families. That’s a great goal, but it costs more money, meaning that fewer units get built overall.

4)      Neighborhood choice: Similarly, in an effort to avoid creating concentrated pockets of poverty, more LIHTC buildings are being built in wealthier areas. It’s another worthy goal that, again, costs more money.

While Poverty, Politics and Profit seems to love the idea of a shadow network of affordable housing political bosses, what emerges instead is the picture of a program that’s consistently producing in the face of rising costs and changing priorities.

Then again, Bipartisan Program Provides Affordable Homes for Millions just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

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The Post Misleads on DHCD Grant Givebacks

From its opening line and its title alone, a recent Washington Post article’s message is clear: Mayor Bowser’s administration is responsible for losing almost $16 million in federal funds for affordable housing. Yet the facts behind the Post’s recent article do little to support this conjecture.

The Facts

The article, entitled “The D.C. Housing Department forfeited millions as families waited for help,” details how DC’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) was forced to return millions of dollars between 2014 and 2016.

These returns, representing a significant portion of the District’s HOME block grant for affordable housing, were compelled because of mismanagement. Some of the $16 million represented money that was never allocated for specific projects and ran into a deadline for use, while the rest came from projects that DHCD approved, but that the federal government later determined did not meet their standards.

This giveback was undoubtedly a tragedy in a city starved for affordable housing, and a preventable one. However, it’s not a reflection of DHCD’s capacity under Mayor Bowser and DHCD Director Polly Donaldson.

The Mislead

In fact, the Post is careful never to specifically fault the Mayor or her administration for the givebacks, preferring instead to lay blame with DHCD. It’s a fair claim—an indisputable one, actually. DHCD mismanagement under the past administration is undoubtedly the reason these funds were lost. But by weaving the facts with repeated references to Mayor Bowser and Director Donaldson, the Post attempts to imply a connection where none exists.

It’s the same game the Bush administration played in going to war in Iraq—say “9/11” and “Saddam Hussein” enough times in the same sentence, and the result is over half the population believing that Hussein was personally responsible for the attacks.

The Post additionally misleads readers with its talk of using the $16 million for local rental vouchers under the city’s Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP). The article claims that the $16 million “could have provided rent vouchers for a year to roughly 1,000 of the city’s poorest families.”

As the administration noted in a rebuttal it circulated earlier this week, the funds in question were spread over multiple years—no single year had $16 million left over. Furthermore, rent supplements are not a one-time expense. The city is required to cover that supplement for as long as the family lives in their subsidized unit. The “1,000 families,” then, is nothing but hyperbole.

The Forgotten

The most important piece left out of the Post article is the most damning to their tenuous connection. All of the money forfeited, both because of deadlines for use or projects that didn’t meet federal standards, was the result of decisions DHCD made before the Bowser administration took over.

The administration’s statement notes that “the over $15 million in HOME funds referenced in the Post’s story actually expired prior to 2015. These projects were funded and approved by the prior administration and were subsequently found to be ineligible for HOME funds during the first six months of the Bowser Administration…”

What’s more, the Post fails to identify that the former DHCD employees it quotes were in fact responsible themselves for underwriting several of the projects that were denied by the federal government.

Whether through an intentional omission or an accidental oversight, this irony is lost for the reader.

While DHCD undeniably had major problems in the past, under Director Donaldson’s leadership it has become a major asset in DC’s work to build and preserve affordable housing. A piece like this one from the Post, with its misleading ties and hyperbolic claims, serves only to endanger funding for the families it ostensibly wants to help.

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Councilmembers Call for Divestment from Wells Fargo

Councilmember David Grosso, whose office wrote the resolution

The City Council wants DC to reconsider its relationship with Wells Fargo Bank. That’s according to a resolution introduced by Councilmembers David Grosso (AL), Anita Bonds (AL), Elissa Silverman (AL), Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), and Charles Allen (Ward 6) last month.

Wells Fargo handles the city government’s banking needs as the city’s bank of record, with billions of dollars in its account.  But in their statement, the councilmembers expressed skepticism that Wells Fargo was meeting its obligations to the communities it serves and called for the District to “reassess its existing relationship with Wells Fargo and consider greater investment in local banks to support community growth.”

Their statement listed concerns about Wells Fargo’s history of racially discriminatory lending practices, its funding of private prisons, and its role in financing the Dakota Access Pipeline. That pipeline was rerouted through the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in part because it was deemed by the EPA to be too dangerous to pass through predominantly-white Bismark, ND’s water supply.

Wells Fargo has also made news in the past year with revelations that thousands of their employees opened millions of false accounts using customers’ information. According to past employees, this was driven by unrealistic sales requirements and a toxic corporate culture. In September of last year Wells Fargo settled with federal regulators for $185 million.

In part because of this, Wells Fargo’s score under the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a piece of legislation designed to monitor and encourage responsible banking in low- and-moderate-income communities, was recently downgraded to a “needs to improve.” This is a failing grade under the CRA ratings, a rare occurrence under a system some advocates have described as being too lenient.

Between 1990 and 2007, an average of only 4 percent of banks each year received a failing grade on their CRA exam.

In their report, federal regulators also referenced Wells Fargo’s history of racial discrimination in lending and other improper lending techniques.

Wells Fargo, for its part, claims its problems are now in the past and that it has taken concrete steps to improve its community services. In a statement after their federal settlement, CEO Tim Sloan declared that Wells Fargo is on a “journey to make things right with customers and rebuild trust.”

DC councilmembers, however, remain unconvinced.

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DC License Plate

Happy Tax Day from the Great American Colony

As Americans across the country scramble to get their taxes filed, Washingtonians have an extra reason to be bitter. That’s because DC residents, who lack Congressional representation, pay the highest per capita federal taxes in the nation.

And it’s not even close.

Taxes who pays the most

DC residents pay on average over $36,000 in federal taxes, four-and-a-half times the national average. The next highest paying jurisdiction, Delaware, shells out just $16,000 per person.

While some like to point out that the District gets more than it gives in federal dollars, that’s only true because of the high number of federal employees living in DC—their salaries are counted in that total.

Budget Autonomy

In fact, federal discretionary spending makes up only 1 percent of DC’s budget. But that hasn’t stopped Congress from fighting to micromanage DC’s use of all funds, both federal and local.

Last year was the first time that the District government could spend its local dollars with only a 30-day Congressional review, during which Congress has the opportunity to hold an up-or-down vote. And even that was only achieved after years of court battles.

Prior to DC’s legal win last year, Congress had often delayed approving the District’s budget for weeks or months, creating headaches and manufactured crises for city leaders.

Congressional Representation

The unfairness of the situation is magnified by the fact that Washingtonians have no voting member of Congress. Not a single vote has been cast by District residents for the men and women who will be deciding how that $36,000 per person will be spent.

And in a city with no elected Republican officials—in a city where just 4 percent of last November’s vote went to President Trump—a Republican controlled House and Senate will be making decisions on how to use the money of these unrepresented American citizens.

To quote the old Schoolhouse Rock line, “That’s called taxation without representation, and it’s not fair.”

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HPAP Success for Retired 1st Time Homeowner

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On Monday, April 10th, Ms. Evans day had finally arrived. At last, after years of working and waiting, the retiree could close on her condo with the help of DC’s Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP). “Being a homeowner means a lot,” said Ms. Evans. “This was my first time. [It’s] an accomplishment.”

Her journey began two years ago, when she started the process of trying to buy a unit in a newly converted apartment building. Amazingly, Ms. Evans had lived in this apartment building a decade before and was looking at buying the exact unit she had previously rented. But funding issues emerged, and her dream of homeownership seemed like it might slip away.

Thankfully, the developer arranged for Ms. Evans to have a one year lease on her unit before purchasing. This allowed her time to save money and get outside funding sources in order.

One of the most important pieces to Ms. Evans is what this could mean for her family. “If something were to happen to me,” she said, “[my home] would go to my daughter, which would help her in so many ways.”

None of this would have been possible, said Ms. Evans, without HPAP. “They helped me a lot,” she said. “[Without HPAP,] I don’t think I would have done it.”

Even to the end nothing was easy. Ms. Evans closing was originally scheduled for the week before, but a last second problem with another grant forced it to be pushed back. But after so much work and so many years of waiting, Ms. Evans was unflappable.

“To be honest, I think it bothered me more than her,” said her realtor, Bill Jackson, with a chuckle. For Ms. Evans, the end was in sight. And now, after all the work and waiting, the unit she rented more than a decade ago is finally her own.

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Why the Housing Production Trust Fund Needs $125M+

Late Breaking: Councilmember Bonds introduces a bill to require trust fund receives at least $120M per year.

Mayor Bowser’s budget dropped yesterday, and for DC affordable housing advocates, one number popped out immediately. The Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF), DC’s biggest source of funding for affordable housing in the city, is set to stagnate at $100 million.

That would be problematic in a normal year, but 2017 (in so many ways) is not normal. Uncertainty at the federal level has caused the bottom to fall out for many affordable housing projects. The trust fund increase is needed now more than ever.

What the Trust Fund Does

MANNA and HAT, along with our coalition partners at CNHED, have been pushing for at least $125 million for the fund. As of 2015, the HPTF had produced or preserved over 8500 units of affordable housing in a city drowning in an affordability crisis. HPTF money is often the only thing that keeps lifelong Washingtonian families from being pushed out of their city.

That alone would be enough reason to justify an increase, but it’s no longer clear that $125 million in the coming year would have a bigger impact than $100 million for this past year. Outside forces are threatening even more pain for DC’s affordable housing scene. In fact, the 25 percent increase may be needed just to keep many projects on track.

LIHTC Explained

The problem DC faces (and communities across the country) is the falling value of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC. LIHTC gives real estate developers a tax credit for building affordable units. Developers can then sell that credit to investors to raise the money they need for an affordable housing project. The program has been wildly successful—over the past three decades, it’s helped fund almost 2.5 million affordable units across the country.

Initially enacted under President Reagan, LIHTC enjoys strong bipartisan support. It’s especially popular because of the way it amplifies the power of federal dollars: when it’s healthy, it can gain millions more in investment than what the government gives up in lost taxes.

But President Trump’s promise to drop corporate taxes from 35 percent to 15 percent have put LIHTC’s value in free fall. Investors aren’t sure what their tax burden will be next year, so they aren’t buying as many tax credits.

To put it another way, because investors think their taxes are likely to go down in the future, they don’t want to spend money lowering their taxes now. That money they aren’t spending would normally go to affordable housing projects.

These investors are like the parents who don’t want to buy any candy until the day after Halloween, and it’s causing problems for everyone.

What DC (and You) Can Do

Ultimately LIHTC problems will need to be solved at the federal level. (There’s currently a bipartisan bill that would increase LITHC’s value by 50 percent over the next five years.) But in the meantime, DC needs to plug the hole to keep affordable housing projects from stagnating. That’s why it’s so crucial that Mayor Bowser and the Council move to increase the HPTF’s allotment to at least $125 million.

As a resident of the Great American Colony, you may not have a federal representative to call, but you do have thirteen councilmembers and a mayor who are just waiting to hear from you. As this post was being written, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds introduced a bill that would guarantee at least $120 million to the trust fund each year. Call your representatives offices and tell them that you support Councilmember Bonds’ bill and at least $125 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund this year!

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Impassioned Speakers, Energized Crowd Get Commitment for #MoreHousingNow

On Saturday morning, people began showing up at United Foundry Methodist on 16th St NW well before the appointed time. After months of preparation the big day had arrived, and hundreds of participants wanted to make sure they got a good seat.

CNHED’s yearly Housing for All Rally—this year tagged “More for Housing Now”—was another great success in a campaign of successes. Since its birth in 2010, the Housing for All Campaign has fought for and won millions and millions in increased funding for DC affordable housing. The Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP), the Local Rent Supplement Program, Targeted Supportive Housing, and, of course, the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) have all been boosted by the campaign. The yearly rally has become such an event that it now regularly draws Mayor Bowser and councilmembers.

But on Saturday, there was no sense that the campaign was resting on its laurels. A series of speakers from all walks of life wanted to make it clear to the city officials in attendance that there was much more work to be done. Their number one priority was clear: increasing the HPTF from $100 million to a minimum of $125 million.

Without this renewed commitment, many said they feared their neighbors, families, or even they themselves could be forced out of the city they call home.

Perhaps no one made this point more forcefully than David Bowers of Enterprise Community Partners. With a fiery speech that ranged from prop comedy to powerful and emotional demands, Bowers brought the crowd to its feet countless times as he described the struggle of working families in DC.

Bowers riled up the crowd by noting that if the Council’s $8 billion budget is represented by $8, only 20 cents of that (“two dimes!”) goes to affordable housing.

He brought his time to a thundering conclusion by comparing the plight of DC families in search of housing to that of a man caught in the rain. “We’re out here every day getting rained on!” he boomed to the roaring crowd, emphasizing his point by emptying a water bottle over his head. To the Council, he said, “we ask for an umbrella. ‘Please, can I have an umbrella?’” Bowers mimed being turned away and dumped more water on his head. “But we keep getting rained on!”

Another speaker to bring down the house was Jeanette Bright, a member of MANNA’s Homebuyers Club. Although initially nervous, she found her groove and captivated the audience with the story of her mother’s struggle to support five daughters. After years of working multiple jobs, Bright’s mother was finally able to buy a home for her family. And now, Bright is closing in on the same goal—thanks to HPAP, she’ll soon be able to buy a house of her own.

Jeanette Bright

MANNA Homebuyers Club member Jeanette Bright

At times overcome by emotion, she ended her speech with a tribute to her mother. Homeownership, Bright said, has been her dream for years, just like it was her mother’s before her. But she said the city must do more. “Homeownership,” concluded Bright, “must not be a dream, but a reality.”

DC lawmakers also feature prominently in the event, with At-Large Councilmembers Anita Bonds and Elissa Silverman taking turns at the podium before Mayor Bowser.

Councilmember Bonds spoke passionately about the need that exists in DC and said that she, as Chair of the Council’s housing committee, is ready to take bold steps. “You’ve asked for at least $125 million for the trust fund,” called Councilmember Bonds. “Well, I’d like to see $200 million!”

“Although,” she concluded with a chuckle, “I’m not sure all of my colleagues are there yet.”

Councilmember Silverman, also on the housing committee, spoke about the human element that is sometimes lost in budget discussions. “What you’re doing today,” said the councilmember, “is taking letters and acronyms and putting faces to them.”

Mayor Bowser, almost the last speaker of the day, let the crowd know she had heard their request. She recounted the growth that the HPTF has seen under her leadership, then turned to the present. “You want me to expand it again?” she asked to cheers.

Like others, the mayor emphasized the importance of people staying engaged in the fight for affordable housing. “We have the resources we need for affordable housing,” she told the crowd. “Now, we need the will to execute it!”

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The GOP Debate at the Ronald Reagan Library

With Cuts, Trump’s HUD Targets Low-Income Families

A leaked copy of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) upcoming budget request presents a grim picture for the future of affordable housing in America. The draft shows over $6 billion being cut, representing almost 15 percent of HUD’s annual budget. If enacted, experts estimate over 200,000 low-income households will lose their rental support, and thousands more will be prevented from moving to an affordable situation.

What makes these cuts even more perverse is the “reverse Robin Hood” essence of their design. Despite the ubiquitous nature of Republican calls for a reduction in federal debt, the Trump administration currently has plans for massive tax cuts for the very wealthy. Along with an additional $54 billion in military spending—almost double what commanders have requested—the picture is clear. These cuts do not represent budget balancing, but rather budget priorities.

The depth and breadth of these cuts is overwhelming, both nationally and for the District. Below we break down several of the top targets for the chopping block and the functions they fulfill.

Community Development Block Grants

Community Development Block Grants, or CDBG for short, provides flexible money for localities to use in community development. In the District, CDBG money makes up 80 percent of the budget for the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP), DC’s mortgage assistance program for first time homebuyers. As we have written countless times before, HPAP plays a vital role in building homeownership among DC’s low-income families.

CDBG actually has strong bi-partisan support. Republicans like it because it gives money back to local communities to use as they please, a core conservative tenet.

HUD’s proposed budget, however, would cut the program’s $3 billion budget entirely. That would leave cities and states across the country scrambling to cover myriad services that their residents depend on. In many cases, poor families would simply fall through the cracks.

Housing Choice Vouchers

Housing Choice Vouchers act as a sort of backstop for many low-income families. Under the program, households are able to find a rental property on the open market and be guaranteed to never spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing—whatever costs go above this are covered by the voucher.

The HUD proposal would cut $300 million from this program, leaving about 200,000 families without assistance. Sadistically, here the Trump administration looks to take money from veterans for the military—included in this program are housing vouchers targeting formerly homeless veterans.

Public Housing

In 2010, HUD released a report describing the desperate state of public housing in America. Those conditions remain unchanged today. Buildings are crumbling, and the conditions many families live in are deplorable. In that 2010 report, HUD estimated that it would need tens of billions of dollars in additional funding to catch up on overdue maintenance.

Instead, President Trump’s HUD has proposed cutting public housing’s maintenance budget by $1.3 billion, a third of its total value. The proposal also takes $600 million from the operating budget, ensuring that more problems will arise even faster as time goes on.

HOME Investment Partnership Program

Like CDBG, HOME represents a pot of money that localities can use in a variety of ways. DC typically uses its share to fund affordable housing construction, like MANNA’s Willowbrook Condominiums.

Yet again, faced with a nationwide affordable housing crisis and a program that gives local governments control of federal dollars, the Trump administration looks to pull the plug. HOME, like CDBG, would be entirely eliminated. Another billion dollars for affordable housing would be lost.

What to do

The good news is that none of this is final. This proposal represents a draft of what the Trump administration will present to Congress. Marshaling the opposition of lawmakers will be crucial, especially among Republicans who see the positive impact that these locally controlled dollars have in their own districts.

You can help make sure that these cuts don’t happen. Call your representatives and let them know that funding bombs and billionaires over low-income families is unacceptable.

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How to Keep DC From Becoming the Next San Francisco

Washington, DC and San Francisco have some striking similarities. Both are mid-sized cities with institutions (government and the tech industry) that pack a punch above their population size. Both are somewhat restrained in terms of expansion, with DC’s small, set borders, and San Francisco’s watery boundaries. And above all, both have seen extreme gentrification in recent years, with the cities growing rapidly and becoming wealthier and whiter as time goes on.

But San Francisco is undoubtedly further along in this vicious process: while DC’s average monthly rent of $1,400 for a single person is the fourth highest in the US, San Francisco’s is the highest in the world at an impressively awful $2,000+.

That allows DC residents to look to San Francisco for some lessons—or, if we’re not careful, to behold our future.

Based on these insights, we’ve got some recommendations for the city council… and for you, the reader. Read on.

What will the future hold for DC if it follows the Frisco model?

  • All housing development, including affordable housing, will be stymied as fear over housing shortages and NIBMY-ism drives irrational opposition. In the Bay Area, this has resulted in severe housing shortages at every level, not just for low-income families. Unlike San Francisco, DC is currently in no danger of a total housing shutdown. The recent explosion of luxury units and high-end condos contributed to overall supply actually outpacing demand in the District’s housing market last year. Of course, affordable housing is nowhere near keeping up.
  • Homeownership will drop even further and DC, like San Francisco, will become truly a renters’ city. Ownership rates in San Francisco have been on a multi-decade slide, with only a third of residents now owning their own homes. DC isn’t much better at a 40 percent homeownership rate.
  • In part because of rock bottom homeownership rates, displacement will move from a low-income issue to a middle class issue. Only the truly wealthy will be able to afford the city proper. That’s already the case in San Francisco, where things have gotten so bad that even good-paying professional jobs are starting to move out because the companies’ employees can’t afford the city.

“Yikes!” you say. “That’s pretty grim. What can we do to avoid all this?” Well, I’m glad you asked!

4

One of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars

DC doesn’t have to go down this path—there’s still time to change. Here are some simple steps we can take to make sure the District remains home for everyone.

  • Affordable Housing: It needs to be funded and constructed like never before. That’s why we’re asking the city council to commit at least $125 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund for the coming year. And honestly, that number might not be big enough. Because of problems in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit market, a primary funding tool for many affordable housing projects across the country, $125 million is probably the new $100 million. If the council really wants to take a step forward rather than just holding even, we’ll need even more commitment.
  • Homeownership: Increasing homeownership needs to be a top priority, both because of the wealth it builds and the protection it offers against sky-rocketing rents. We’re calling on the council to keep funding the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) at $16 million, the level it was increased to last year. HPAP provides crucial down payment assistance and secondary mortgage loans to first time homebuyers in DC. That builds wealth, moves people into the middle class, and keeps long-time residents in our city.
  • An ever-broader movement: More middle-income Washingtonians need to realize that affordable housing is their issue, too. NIMBY-ism and indifference might work in the short term, but sooner or later it will catch up. We need to build a broad coalition of DC residents, new and old, of all wealth levels and racial backgrounds. (The rich benefit from affordable housing, too, by the way. Unless wealthy urbanites want to start entering the service industry en masse, it’s in their best interest to keep around the people who make cities run.)

If DC is to avoid the fate of its West Coast sister city, we need to move on funding and organizing now. Tell your councilmembers to boost the Trust Fund. Get their commitment that they’ll keep supporting HPAP. And join a local organization that’s fighting for affordable housing. Hey, we’ve got a suggestion right here.

If you would like more information about joining the Housing Advocacy Team, email Jonathan Nisly at jnisly@mannadc.org!

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