The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Home Buying is a Must

Manna Blog PhotoIn an out-of-touch and at times baffling article, Washington Post opinion writer Charles Lane recently penned a piece he entitled “Why the decline of the homeownership rate is good news.”

He’s referring to the fact that the homeownership rate in the U.S. has dropped below 63 percent to its lowest level in decades. We covered this news slightly differently several weeks ago.

In the article, Lane tries to simultaneously make the case that homeownership is a bad investment and that the government is unable to affect homeownership rates. The only option, he says, is to get government out of the housing market.

Homeownership has long been the American Dream, with studies showing that it contributes in positive ways to everything from education to wealth-building. So why does Lane think that Dream is dead? His argument can, with some effort, be broken into two pieces.

  1. The Great Recession shows that homeownership is too risky to be a good investment.

“If the Great Recession taught anything, it was that… homeownership is not a surefire ticket into the middle class. It can be downright risky.”

This is an interesting example from someone who is advocating for less government involvement in the housing market. The Great Recession, as many readers may recall, was precipitated by the collapse of the predatory mortgage market.

Mortgage brokers and Wall Street bankers, who for the better part of a decade had been getting rich off of deceitful loans to poor families (and people of color at disproportionate rates regardless of income), saw their party come to a bitter end in 2007.

That crash logically left two options: to provide greater government oversight of loans, which we know for a fact to be effective from CRA data, or to let homeownership become an exclusive pursuit of the wealthy.

Homeownership remained a solid investment throughout the recession for many low- and moderate-income families with fair mortgages (and good counseling), especially now on the other side of the collapse as prices begin to rise again.

As you might have guessed, however, Lane picks option two, where owner-occupied homes become the yachts of the future.

But jettisoning homeownership is unavoidable for Lane because of his second point…

  1. The government has no place in the housing market.

Why? Because… Europe.

“[Europe’s] modern experience suggests no simple connection between a high homeownership rate and the ‘positive externalities’ often attributed to it.”

Lane makes a convoluted argument about European countries, some with homeownership rates higher than the U.S., others lower, and draws the conclusion that government policy doesn’t matter.

But to borrow a quip, it must be noted that we are not Denmark.

Government intervention has clearly had huge impacts on homeownership rates in the U.S., although it’s not surprising that Lane has missed this.

Lane, like many Americans, seems to have only a vague understanding of the racial wealth gap in America. He does mention this phenomenon briefly, right after celebrating falling homeownership and right before deriding government involvement in it.

“…the reconcentration of home equity, while positive for those who own homes and for the overall stability of the economy, is regressive with respect to wealth distribution. This is especially so because African Americans and Hispanics remain less likely to own homes than whites.”

A fleeting moment of insight. The gap in homeownership between whites and people of color is a huge part of the reason that black families on average have just 1/16th the net worth of white families. The numbers are similar for Latinos.

But what Lane fails to mention is that these lower homeownership rates for people of color are no accident.

A whole series of racist government policies, some of which were dismantled just fifty years ago, provided bountiful opportunities for white families to own their homes, while locking black and Latino families out of the process.

And unsurprisingly, that dynamic shows up in the data. The reason white families have a homeownership rate today that’s about 30 points higher than black and Latino families is precisely because of this government intervention.

http://www.epi.org/files/2012/charts-swa/6J.png.640

U.S. homeownership rate by race over time; from the Economic Policy Institute

We can see that since 1975, shortly after the end of explicitly racist housing policies, the homeownership rate for different racial groups has moved more or less in sync. All groups had made solid gains by 2006 before the crash wiped them out.

So a recap on our history lesson…

In the early 20th century, the government made a push for white families to become homeowners. This effort was successful and resulted in higher homeownership rates and greater wealth for white families.

In the decades after the U.S. did away with its explicitly racist policies, homeownership rates for different racial groups began moving together. By 2006, all Americans had seen an increase in the homeownership rate.

But due to an under-regulated mortgage market, which disproportionately targeted black families with sub-prime loans, many of those gains were erased. Families with fair mortgages who were able to keep their homes have still seen solid returns on their investments—a point Lane unintentionally hammered home at the opening of his article—but many others have not had that opportunity.

The logical question, then, would seem to be what the government can do to close the racial gap in wealth and homeownership that it has created.

Unfortunately, the logic in Lane’s article is about on par with his framing of history.

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Farewell to MANNA – A Year of Growth

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By Ruth Bordett, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer through NeighborWorks 

With my time as AmeriCorps VISTA at MANNA  nearing the end, I would like to share some of my thoughts about my year as part of the development department at MANNA. When I arrived at MANNA in August 2015, I had little to no knowledge of affordable housing and its role in the District. I previously wrote a blog post in December (“Wading Through a Sea of Housing Jargon”) about the difficulty I had in grasping all of the housing jargon and procedures that have become essential to my work at MANNA. The past year has served as a crash course in affordable housing policies and development. I am proud to say that I am walking away from my year at MANNA with a much better comprehension of the importance of affordable housing.

All of my memories from MANNA share the common thread of serving as proof of the long and impactful history the organization has had on so many families and the Washington, D.C. community as a whole. I am honored to have witnessed the role MANNA has taken over the past year in striving to provide services and resources to the community East of the Anacostia River. The creation of our Ward 8 Homebuyers’ Club and the annual East of the River Homebuyer Fair are important strides towards our mission and continuing to deepen our partnership with communities in overlooked areas of the city, like Wards 7 and 8. Additionally, MANNA’s 24-unit condo complex in Southeast, the Buxton, was featured in a Washington Post article (“Finding an Affordable Anchor in D.C.’s Wave of Gentrification”). Seeing the hard work of my colleagues and MANNA’s buyers documented in this way has been extremely rewarding.

MANNA’s staff are truly a family and have always been welcoming to me. This is evident at our large fundraisers, like Friends of MANNA, and in the lunchroom each work day. The staff recently put together a retirement party for our former Director of Homebuyer Education, Willamena Samuels. The Homebuyers’ Club room was filled with guests and almost every person present had a personal story or sentiment to share about Willamena. Her 18 years of dedication to MANNA and each person’s obvious appreciation for her and the organization’s long history is what makes MANNA special.

Despite my lack of experience in affordable housing, each person I have encountered at MANNA has welcomed me and imparted their knowledge to aid the fight for affordable housing in D.C. For this, I will be forever grateful. As I continue to pursue a future in nonprofit work, I hope to stay connected to MANNA. MANNA has already left its mark on the District’s history, but I know it will continue to serve and improve our community for many years to come.


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The Housing Advocacy Team: “Bigger and Better Each Year”

Several weeks ago in the sweltering July heat, a group of people with a common interest in affordable housing gathered at MANNA’s headquarters in Northeast DC. They shared a couple pizzas, celebrated their recent First Annual Homeownership Town Hall, and talked about the issues facing their city: housing prices, evictions, racism.

It was a low-key event, lacking the fine dining and press coverage of many District political meetings. Mayor Bowser’s recent pitch to Republican leaders in Cleveland, for instance, featured salmon with a side of national media attention.

But given the group’s record, the press might have been wise to also snag a slice in Northeast.

That group is the Housing Advocacy Team, or HAT, a collection of individuals who are passionate about making DC homes affordable. Many of them became connected with HAT through MANNA’s homebuyer program. Others turned to HAT for help in tricky situations and then decided to stick around.

Together, the group has helped support some of the biggest wins DC has seen in affordable housing.

Through their work with the Coalition for Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED), the yearly Housing for All rally has grown from just dozens of participants at its inception to over 1,000 people this year.

The Housing for All Campaign’s success is reflected in the $100 million directed to the Housing Protection Trust Fund in both 2015 and 2016. That money will expand the impact of the Trust Fund, which has supplied funding for projects that currently house over 18,000 District residents.

HAT and the Housing for All Campaign saw another win this spring, as their push led to the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) receiving a massive funding increase. HPAP, DC’s first time homebuyer loan program, got a bump of $6 million—a more than 60% raise. The money will go to interest-free loans as high as $80K for first time homebuyers.

But the Team has no interest in resting on its laurels. HAT will be meeting soon to decide on priorities for the next year’s advocacy cycle, and there will be an event in the second week of September for people unfamiliar with HAT to learn more and become involved.

“I hope [HAT] is around forever,” says Victoria Palacio, a HAT member. “Well, as long as it’s needed. If HAT can continue to address the problem to where there’s no longer an affordable housing issue in DC, that would be great. But as long as there is a need… [we’ll] continue to have events that are bigger and better each year.”

Although there are still no plans for salmon at the meetings, reporters would do well to mark those words. HAT hasn’t been in the business of empty promises.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about affordable housing and the political process in DC, follow @hatdc on twitter and the Housing Advocacy Team on facebook. And look for specifics on the event in September!

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New HUD Rule Empowers Communities to Dismantle Segregation

Many cities, states, and counties across the country are currently working on an old project in a new way. The federal government’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AFFH), finalized a year ago, is changing the way local jurisdictions deal with racial and ethnic segregation.

Activists in the '60s demonstrating for the original Fair Housing Act

Activists in the ’60s demonstrating for the original Fair Housing Act

AFFH is a new directive by the Obama Administration on the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Fair Housing Act was passed in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, as anger and grief exploded into riots in many poor predominately black communities across the country.

The nation’s attention was drawn to the conditions that these communities had lived in for decades. Activists seized the opportunity, and political will for action, which until that point had proved elusive, was mustered.

Almost sixty years later, however, the data show that not much has changed. The Fair Housing Act has been described as “forgotten, neglected and unenforced.” The United States and its cities are still highly segregated, and with the racial wealth gap worsening in the past decade, market forces are clearly not raising all boats.

That’s why the Administration felt the new rule was in order. Local jurisdictions will now be required to publicly report on the state of segregation in their territory, as well as the availability of services such as schools, libraries, and hospitals.

They will then be required to make a plan to address the issues they find, and their progress will be tracked over time. Local governments that fail to meet requirements will be in danger of losing all funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), including highly coveted transportation money.

The new process also offers huge opportunities for involvement from community groups, with public comments available at each step of the process and the involvement of affected groups a required part of the planning.

If community groups feel that their jurisdiction lacks the will to address segregation and related issues, AFFH even allows for them to submit their own report and goals, which the federal government can then require the local government to enact.

And HUD is giving everyone the tools to get the job done. The department recently released a new mapping tool, which allows everyone from city planners to casual observers to document the challenges their communities are facing.

The ease of use that this tool affords means that governments with good intentions can better do their job and, on the flip side, less-motivated jurisdictions can be called out by their citizenry.

Job proximity in DC 1 dot = 100 people. Green dots are African-Americans, while orange dots show whites. The darker the grey background, the more easily accessible jobs are in that census tract. This map, created by the author with the new HUD tool, shows that literally no experience is required to find issues for AFFH consideration.

Job proximity in DC
1 dot = 100 people. Green dots are African-Americans, while orange dots show whites. The darker the grey background, the more easily accessible jobs are in that census tract. This map, created by the author with the new HUD tool, shows that literally no experience is required to find issues for AFFH consideration.

For instance, the map above shows that African-Americans in DC on average have much farther to travel than whites to find jobs. That’s the kind of issue AFFH wants local governments to work on.

Readers who caught last week’s piece on the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) may think they see an opportunity for some cross-pollination—and they would be right. Another great aspect of AFFH is that it allows local jurisdictions to use all tools available to them to combat the problems they find.

So in this case, where predominantly black Anacostia can be seen to be lacking in accessible jobs, DC government and community groups could use the CRA to get banks to extend more small business loans east of the river, thus increasing job availability. In this way, data and goals from the new AFFH can work together with existing laws to further multiple objectives.

If that’s a little bit too wonky for you, that’s okay. The important thing is that, like the CRA, AFFH offers community groups and local governments another tool to chip away at the segregation that has been present in this country since its founding.

And that’s good news.

This post relies heavily on information from a recent training by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Check out their website at ncrc.org and find an upcoming training near you!

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The CRA: A Tool for 21st Cent Desegregation

The National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) recently released an exciting report about the effectiveness of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a government program frequently used to encourage private investment in neglected neighborhoods.

In 1977, Congress passed the CRA in an attempt to increase the number and amount of loans flowing to neighborhoods that had been historically neglected by financial institutions.

What is the CRA?

The CRA was written after several decades of growing pressure for Congress to reverse damage done by the legalized racism of the mid-20th century.  Between 1934 and 1968, the Federal Housing Authority effectively required that private mortgage institutions avoid lending to non-white communities by refusing to back loans that did not comply with their rules.

In the practice known as “redlining,” detailed city maps were distributed by the Authority to mortgage companies with neighborhoods color-coded to determine their desirability for lending.

A map of redlining in Philadelphia

A map of redlining in Philadelphia

The Whiter and more homogenous the neighborhoods were, the higher their ranking would be. The opposite held true as well: neighborhoods with Black, Latino, Jewish, and Asian-American populations were surrounded by red lines to show their danger because of, in the Federal Housing Authority’s words, the “infiltration of a lower grade population.”

This policy and others like it are in large part responsible for our present day racial wealth gap.

The CRA attempts to correct this by monitoring the volume of loans banks make to low- and moderate-income communities, as well as the number of branches and ATMs they have in these areas.

Financial institutions that meet the targets are more likely to be approved to open new branches and merge with other banks, whereas noncompliant institutions may be denied or required to make a plan for investment with community groups before being given approval.

Pitfalls and Accomplishments

It is, unfortunately, a colorblind policy. As the report points out, efforts to combat segregation without acknowledging the existence of race will have inherent blind spots. (For instance, as last week’s blog noted, higher income African-Americans are more likely than lower income Whites to receive predatory mortgages.)

The CRA has, however, contributed an enormous amount to community development work. Since 1996, banks covered by the CRA have issued over half a million community development loans, collectively worth $.8 trillion. That money goes to affordable housing and economic development in targeted communities.

 

CRA community development loan amounts, from NCRC

                                       CRA community development loan amounts, from NCRC

CRA institutions have also been an important source of mortgages for moderate- and low-income families. From 2007 to 2008, as the housing market was collapsing and many institutions stopped lending, CRA banks issued almost 2 million prime loans (that’s the good kind) to targeted borrowers.

While some have claimed that the CRA is responsible for the crash because it forces banks to lend to groups they would otherwise avoid, the data tell a different story.

Researchers found that mortgages from CRA-exempt institutions, mainly mortgage companies like Quicken Loans who do not take public deposits, were twice as likely to end up in foreclosure. In other words, expanding rather than limiting the CRA may be the best protection against future crises.

The CRA, says NCRC’s report, certainly has room for improvements in areas such as the consideration of race in lending and the expansion of its coverage to independent mortgage institutions. However, the report ultimately hails it as a model for reinvestment in neglected communities.

At a time when our country is struggling to respond to its historical and present segregation, the CRA offers concrete evidence of the impact that targeted legislation can achieve.

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Report: U.S. Faces “Unprecedented” Decline in Homeownership

A new report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies paints a bleak picture of homeownership in America. The report, titled The State of the Nation’s Housing, details the continuation of a homeownership decline it describes as “unprecedented in American history.”

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Since a peak of 69 percent in 2004, the proportion of American households that are homeowners has dropped more than 5 percent. With the slide spurred on by the 2008 housing crash and Great Recession, homeownership has never recovered—in 2015, less of the American population owned their own home than at any point in the last thirty years.

The report also notes that the homeownership gap between white and black households has widened since the recession. The economic dip overall had a disproportionate effect on minority households, with a large part of that impact coming from reduced home equity.

Racist lender practices exacerbated the issue. In 2000, the Treasury Department found that black households in wealthier neighborhoods were twice as likely to be issued expensive subprime loans as were white households in poorer neighborhoods.

Reasons for the Drop

This decline in homeownership is not due to any lack of interest in owning a home—the report notes that 78% of Americans still think owning a home is a “great investment.” Rather, it is a reflection of the barriers that potential homeowners face.

The first big problem facing many first-time homebuyers is one that their parents may not have dealt with, or at least not in the same way. As of 2013, student loan debt affected one out of every five American households. That’s up from around one in ten households in 2001.

The problem has not only spread, but deepened. Average student loan debt per indebted household has gone from $10,500 to $17,000 in that period, and over a third of borrowers owe more than $25,000. This has made it increasingly difficult for potential buyers in their twenties and thirties to save enough for a down payment.

A second problem is the number of homeowners being removed from the pool each year. Foreclosures and foreclosure-related sales have dropped from their eye-popping numbers a few years ago, but they remain significantly higher than in the early 2000s. 2015 saw over 55,000 foreclosures and related sales per month, versus less than 20,000 per month a decade ago.

The report attributes this to “overhang” from the recession and notes that the number does continue to trend downward, albeit at a frustratingly slow pace.

Finally, the report indicates that tightening credit score requirements are keeping a large number of low- and moderate-income Americans from receiving mortgages. That group’s share of total first-time mortgages dropped precipitously between 2010 and 2014, as credit requirements became more stringent at most major lenders.

This trend also disproportionately limits homeownership for minority households, who on average have lower credit scores than their white peers.

The one bright spot? The report notes that for households who were able to buy a home between 1999 and 2009 and then hold on to it through the recession, net wealth grew by over $85,000.

And District residents can feel better knowing that their government is taking steps to address two of these issues, with its work on down payment assistance as well as homebuyer counseling to help raise credit scores.

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A meeting of the MANNA Homebuyers Club

HUD Echoes Participants: MANNA’s Homebuyers Club Breeds Success

The kind of homebuyer counseling and education that MANNA does through its Homebuyers Club increases credit scores, encourages better communication with lenders, and improves participants understanding of how mortgages work.

That’s according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on its early findings from a massive study of homebuyer education and counseling programs across the country. HUD looked at almost 6,000 households in 28 metro areas between September 2013 and January 2016 in a study that is being billed as “groundbreaking in its scale.”

Joseph Coates is a MANNA homeowner and member of the Housing Advocacy Team who recently also became a part of MANNA’s board of directors. He says that the Homebuyers Club was a huge help to him in the home buying process.

By attending evening classes for a just a few hours each month, Coates learned about how to improve his credit score, apply for loans, and save money for a down payment. Coates was also part of a special program that matched a portion of participants’ savings so as to incentivize greater investment.

“The biggest thing I got out of it was being prepared for what HPAP [the Home Purchase Assistance Program] and the banks—you know, the money people—what they would want,” says Coates. “If I hadn’t went through the Homebuyers Club, I wouldn’t have been ready. I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Rev. Jim Dickerson, MANNA’s CEO, says that the HUD report simply reinforces what MANNA’s leadership has known for years.

MANNA has built over 1200 homes in DC since its start in 1982. It has a paltry 3% foreclosure rate and not a single one since 2008.

“That,” says Dickerson, “is due in large part to our homebuyer counseling services.”

Thomas “TC” Caviness, MANNA’s newly hired Director of Homebuyer Education and Counseling, says that this report shows the importance of MANNA and the Homebuyers Club.

“Whenever you educate yourself before you start the process, you increase your chances of being successful.”

Coates, the MANNA homeowner, agrees. He says that for those who stick with the program, buying a home is as simple as “just doing what they tell you to do.”

Those who are interested in joining or learning more about the Homebuyers Club can visit http://www.mannadc.org/homebuyer-club/.

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Congressional Republicans Take Aim at Federal Housing Funds

As June draws to a close, it’s becoming clear that local and national leaders have very different ideas about how to best celebrate National Homeownership Month.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (breitbart.com)

                                                       House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (breitbart.com)

While the District government led its June Housing Bloom initiative, Republicans in the House and Senate released two separate plans that would result in billions of federal dollars being directed away from affordable housing. This comes at a time when more American renters than ever before are severely cost burdened, paying over 50 percent of their income for housing each month.

In the lower chamber, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been busy rolling out his comprehensive legislative agenda. Titled “A Better Way,” Ryan’s proposal contains the traditional conservative mainstays: consolidation and elimination of federal programs, work requirements for families receiving government assistance, and the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.

In its tax reform recommendations, it decries the current corporate tax code, which it says is “littered with special-interest deductions and credits.” To fix this (and to at least partially off-set its massive corporate tax rate cut), the plan calls for the elimination of all corporate deductions except those used for research and development.

Caught up in the bloodbath is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC, pronounced “lie tech”), a program that has provided financing for over 2 million affordable units since its creation under the Reagan Administration. That number includes thousands of units in Washington, DC and even a current affordable rental project of MANNA’s.

LIHTC provides a tax credit to developers for housing that is affordable to renters making 60 percent or less of their Area Median Income—apparently just the kind of “special interest deduction” that Ryan’s plan finds so repugnant.

Senate Bill

In the Senate, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the “Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act,” which would dismantle all current federal housing programs and replace them with a block grant to states.

Modeled off of legislation announced by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) earlier in June, it would mean the end of federal housing funds for means-tested programs. Instead, states would need to develop their own plans.

These new plans would also have to deal with ever-decreasing funds—the bill calls for cutting federal housing aid in half over the next decade.

Rep. Ryan has recently been attempting to reform Republican rhetoric on poverty, chastising himself and his colleagues for referring to poor mothers and others receiving government assistance as “takers.” It seems, however, that these reforms were indeed purely rhetorical.

If you would like to express your feelings about the importance of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, you can do so at http://waysandmeans.house.gov/taxreform/. Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the “Tax Blueprint Feedback” form.

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Primary winners Robert White, Trayon White, and Vincent Gray (from thekojonnamdishow.org and glaaforum.org)

Council Primary Winners Set Big Goals for Affordable Housing

Left to right: primary winners Robert White, Trayon White, and Vincent Gray (from thekojonnamdishow.org and glaaforum.org)

Washington, D.C. is set to see some new faces in politics come November, as two newcomers and a returnee beat incumbents in the City Council Democratic primaries last Tuesday. Although nothing will officially change until after the November general election, in liberal D.C. a nod in the Democratic primary is tantamount to victory.

So how will the shake-up affect affordable housing in the city?

In the Ward 7 race, the challenger certainly wasn’t an unknown quantity. Former Mayor Vincent Gray marked his return to city politics with a defeat of first-term Councilmember Yvette Alexander. Gray had been campaigning heavily on his record as mayor, citing his work to increase funding for affordable housing programs of all kinds.

“Overall, [under my administration] we invested $287 million in affordable housing and recommended that the city subsequently invest each year at least $100 million in affordable housing.”

The city has since surpassed that number, committing $100 million each year to the Housing Protection Trust Fund (HPTF) alone, plus increasing funding for the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP). Gray has promised to support the HPTF at current funding levels.

Gray also cites more technical concerns, pointing to his effort as mayor to reform D.C. zoning laws and allow for greater residential density. He promises going forward to “support zoning changes to make building more affordable units easier and more straightforward.”

In Ward 8, Trayon White, a neighborhood organizer and alumni of the D.C. Attorney General’s office, defeated incumbent LaRuby May, another first-term councilmember.

Trayon White touched on a number of affordable housing issues throughout his campaign. He has said he supports the $100 million per year to the HPTF and more.

“I support raising additional revenue for housing. D.C. had a $417 million surplus in the last fiscal year. It’s not that we don’t have any money… We have to put more money into housing to ensure decent and affordable living quarters for all.”

Earlier this year, Trayon White called for an increase in HPAP funding that has since been answered by the Mayor and Council’s recent budget. He has also cited a need for tightening rent control laws by closing loopholes and limiting landlords’ guaranteed return on investment.

Like Gray, he supports efforts to allow for greater density and simplified zoning laws to accommodate the development of affordable housing.

In the At-Large race, another White (Robert) managed to unseat long-time incumbent Vincent Orange. Like Trayon, Robert White also hails from the Attorney General’s office.

Zoning law has also been on his mind, especially as it intersects with transportation concerns.

He has called for rezoning struggling commercial corridors to allow for more affordable housing in areas with easy transit access, an important goal in a city that struggles with gentrifying transport hubs.

Robert White has also proposed increased incentives for non-profit developers (like MANNA) that provide affordable housing.

In addition to his big policy proposals, Robert White has been critical of current enforcement of affordable housing laws, writing that “it’s the rule, not the exception, that developers get waivers in order to avoid building affordable housing.”

As Gray, White, and White look to join the Council in November, it will be up to the citizenry to remind them of their ambitious plans for affordable housing in the District.

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A Returning Citizen’s Struggle: Housing and “the Box”

“It’s like trying to get restarted, but everybody’s smacking you in the face.”

Stan has had more than his fair share of struggles in life. A senior citizen and veteran of the armed forces, Stan is now disabled, diabetic, and in search of a new home. Unfortunately, Stan has one more item to add to the list—he is also a returning citizen, having spent three years of his life in prison.

Stan, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, recounts the process he recently went through in applying to lease a new residence. “I filled out all the forms, went through all the paperwork. I was highly qualified. And then, no explanation, I get a rejection letter.”

When Stan tried to follow up, he was stonewalled. Weeks went by with no response.

Stan remembers “the box” on the application dreaded by many returning citizens, asking if he had been convicted of a felony in the last five years. But he had thought he was in the clear. His last brush with the law was almost 15 years ago, and in any case it had been a minor probationary charge rather than a felony.

“I suspect they did their own background check,” says Stan. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

That background check would have turned up the charge from 15 years ago, plus Stan’s jail time. And when was it that Stan was incarcerated?

“That would have been between ’73 and ’75.”

Stan believes he was denied housing based on a charge from more than 40 years ago. And because D.C. offers no protections to returning citizens looking for housing, the lessors are well within their rights.

“A lot of times I wish I was still locked up.”

It’s a problem that faces some 70,000 District residents, the almost 10 percent of the population that has a criminal record. And with 8,000 more Washingtonians returning home from prison each year, the problem is only growing.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie spoke with the DCist blog in April about the crisis.

“It is a persistent problem that we have encountered in District,” said McDuffie. “What we want is for men and women returning to the District, after paying their debt to society, to have a fair chance, and finding decent housing is critical to their reintegration.”

According to the Councilmember, 17 percent of people under probation or supervised release struggle with insecure housing.

To help combat this, McDuffie, along with At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, has introduced legislation to “ban the box” on housing. Modeled after similar legislation passed last year around employment, this bill would prohibit landlords from asking about past convictions or conducting background checks until after an initial conditional offer has been extended.

While he thinks it’s a step in the right direction, Stan is unsure that this bill would help his particular situation.

He’s wise to be cautious given a recent review of last year’s box-banning employment legislation by the DC Auditor’s office. According to the review, more than half of employers were unfamiliar with the law. And although it’s tricky to draw broad conclusions from a small pool of petitioners, the numbers don’t bode well—so far, only 17 percent of complaints have resulted in monetary settlements.

The news isn’t all bad, though. Since implementation, the DC government has increased the percentage of returning citizens hired for positions requiring a background check.

In other words, “ban the box” legislation might prove to be a helpful first step, although clearly more work is needed.

And Stan? He’s in touch with MANNA’s Housing Advocacy Team, the DC Public Defenders and others, trying to figure what’s next.

“You gotta keep fighting,” says Stan. “Just gotta keep fighting.”

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