Category Archives: Advocate’s Corner

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HPAP, EAHP, and Hard Work: Homeownership Success

To say that lifelong Washingtonian Erin Skinner has been busy the last few years is an understatement.

When the lease on her old apartment expired more than two years ago, she applied at a few other buildings in the area. But she quickly learned that, despite having a stable job as a DC government employee, she didn’t earn enough to even qualify in the buildings where she wanted to live. That realization led her to start looking for a home to buy instead, and she joined MANNA’s Homebuyers Club—on top of everything else in her life.

Skinner is a single parent to her two sons, ages 17 and 4. At the time, she was also hard at work on her undergraduate degree—all while never cutting back on her DC government job.

“I was in school full-time and working full-time. And looking for this house,” says Skinner.

After getting her credit score up with help from the Homebuyers Club, Skinner started looking for her new home. The search was possible thanks to DC’s Home Purchase Assistance Program, the District’s down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers, and the Employer Assistance Housing Program, which Skinner was eligible for because she is a District employee.

But even with the incredible amount of work Skinner was putting in and funding sources all lined up, the process was a constant challenge.

Skinner had a house picked out that seemed perfect, and she was set to go to closing. But at the last minute she found that the regulations calculating her eligibility had been changed—her student loans now counted against her total debt.

The deal fell through. Skinner had to pass on her perfect house and start the whole process over again. With everything else in her life, it felt overwhelming.

But Skinner kept pushing, she says, in large part because of her love for DC. “I never wanted to leave DC. I was born and raised here.”

She recognizes that in many ways it’s a different city than the one she grew up in. “The city is changing so rapidly, all the new storefronts and condos. I’ve been wondering whether that would happen to where I live [in Southeast].”

People often ask why she doesn’t leave. “I want to stay here,” says Skinner. “I want to be able to benefit from everything that’s going on. All the changes are not bad… I want to benefit from the good changes that are going on in DC, and also to have my children benefit from those changes.”

Finally, Skinner’s dream has come together. This year, she says, “has been the year of me.” In May she graduated from college, and soon after she found a house that fits her family’s needs even better than the one before. And with the lift from HPAP and EAHP, her mortgage payments are far more manageable than renting.

What’s more, it meets her top goal: staying in DC. “Actually,” says Skinner, “where I live now is 10 minutes from where I’ve lived my entire life.”

She has some advice for others going through MANNA’s Homebuyers Club.

“To other prospective homebuyers, there are going to be days that you want to quit. There are going to be times when you see the house that you really, really want, and you find out that you can’t get it. Just know that if you keep going, you’ll find a house that’s even better than the one you thought you had to have.”

After seeing what hard work and HPAP can do, it’s hard to argue with her.

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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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.

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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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Brookland Manor Residents Fight to Keep Their Homes–and Families–Intact

In a city starved for housing, 1200 additional units sounds like a blessing. That’s the net gain from Bethesda-based developer Mid-City Financial Corp’s proposal to redevelop Brookland Manor, a 535-unit complex near the Rhode Island Metro. But a closer look reveals that Mid-City’s designs have no room for current neighborhood residents.

The Plan

Mid-City’s grand vision for the site of Brookland Manor is, well, grand. With over 1700 rental units and 180,000 square feet of retail space, the project has the potential to be a boon to the area’s housing and economic markets.

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Artist’s rendering of the redevelopment plan

The problem comes, however, when these 1700 units are compared to what’s currently there.

A quarter of Brookland Manor’s units have 4 or 5 bedrooms, a rare and important feature for families living in multi-generational situations. OneDC, a local organizing group who has been working with Brookland Manor tenants, says that often the ability to add an aunt, cousin, or grandparent to the household is the only thing that keeps them from ending up in homeless shelters.

The redevelopment, however, would offer no 4 or 5 bedroom units and would reduce the number of 3 bedroom options. Units with more than 3 bedrooms, according to Mid-City, “are not consistent with the creation of a vibrant new community.” That kind of language has led residents to file a lawsuit claiming discrimination based on family size.

Affordability Concerns

At a teach-in on Brookland Manor Monday night in Northwest, OneDC tenant advocates asserted that the plan will also reduce affordability in the neighborhood. Currently 373 of the units have rent ceilings under the federal Section 8 housing program. Mid-City regularly touts the fact that they will keep this contract under the redevelopment.

However, most of these new affordable units will be designated as “senior units” with the aforementioned reductions in bedrooms. Tenant advocates say this will force elderly residents living with children and grandchildren to choose between sending their families away or joining them in their exodus.

Beyond the Section 8 units, most of the rest of Brookland Manor’s residents are renting affordably thanks to DC’s rent voucher program. According to the Washington Post, Mid-City has “pledged to try” to keep these renters on in the redevelopment.

On Monday night, advocates expressed heavy skepticism about this proposal. Because properties must meet the area’s “fair market rate” to be eligible for the voucher program, Mid-City’s new luxurious units would almost certainly be too expensive to qualify.

That would mean at least a hundred households looking for a new place to live.

Moving Residents Out of “Good Standing”

Even the only residents who could theoretically make it through the redevelopment unscathed—small families currently living in Section 8 units—feel that their situation is tenuous.

Mid-City’s promises about avoiding displacement have always included an important caveat: that it applies to residents “in good standing.” And as a recent Washington Post article pointed out, Mid-City has mounted a concerted effort to make sure that definition applies to as few residents as possible.

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From @LeeyahNotLayah on Twitter

The Post article details how many tenants at Brookland Manor have faced eviction notices for late payments as small as $25. While the vast majority of those attempted evictions have been successfully avoided, it seems that Mid-City may be building a case that these residents are not “in good standing.”

OneDC advocates also noted that the management has started issuing notices of infraction to residents for offenses as benign as sitting on their front stoop or allowing their children to play on the lawn. The effect, they say, is that almost every household now has a record of violation—enough to argue that they do not meet the “good standing” requirement.

Thursday Rally

The next step in the redevelopment process is a zoning commission meeting on Thursday, February 23. OneDC is asking District residents to come out for a rally that evening at 5:00 to pressure the commission to keep residents’ interests in mind.

Ultimately they want Mid-City to preserve all 535 existing units as affordable, commit to keeping on all current residents, and maintain the present number of 4 and 5 bedroom units. To help them do so, OneDC has offered to work with them through the process of securing Housing Production Trust Fund money from the city.

So far, however, Mid-City has expressed no interest in such a proposal.

Join us at 5:00 this Thursday, Feb 23, as we rally in support of Brookland Manor tenants at the DC Zoning Commission. 441 4th St NW, Washington, DC

More details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1389018421132061/

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Automatic Tax Cuts: DC’s Leaky Bucket

An ongoing affordable housing crisis. A metro system in grave disrepair. An uncertain future of federal funding for Medicaid and other services. These problems and more face DC as the city looks to craft its budget for the coming year. However, since 2014 the city has given back $100 million dollars in tax cuts, built up $2 billion in savings for its reserve, and has plans to give back almost $130 million more before the decade is over.

In 2014, the City Council changed tax policy to give away increases in revenue as tax cuts. Whenever the District government reached a new level of income, a new round of tax cuts would automatically take place.

Some of those tax cuts made sense. For instance, a new bracket was created at a lower rate for individuals earning $40-60,000, helping middle-income families. The standard deduction that everyone can take has been raised and stands to increase even more.

Some of the cuts, however, clearly benefit only a select few. Those earning between $350,000 and $1 million a year saw their rates cut. And the new tax code goes further in making sure that this inequality persists from generation to generation, raising the threshold for higher estate taxes from $1 million to $2 million to, in the future, over $5 million.

The biggest issue with this model of tax cuts is that they are inflexible to current needs. Revenue goes out the door, right or wrong, before Washingtonians have a chance to weigh in on how they think it should be used. Our elected officials are shooting themselves in the foot by making it unnecessarily harder to deal with the affordable housing crisis, metro’s challenges, and more.

A similar problem is happening with DC’s budget surpluses. Although final numbers aren’t out yet, as of last estimate the District is looking at a $220 million budget surplus from the last fiscal year. However, this money also can’t go to any of the above concerns—it’s legally mandated to go into DC’s savings. That law has led the city to a record-breaking $2 billion bank account.

In many ways, it’s a good problem to have. Disputes over how to spend surpluses are what accountants dream of.

But in a city where families are being priced out of their homes, trains are smoking on the tracks, and a volatile federal government threatens safety net spending, reserve requirements should be revisited. And automatic tax cuts shouldn’t be slipping out the door.

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!

New Accountability Tool – Consumer Complaint Database

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Do you feel powerless to resolve a debt payment issue, a credit report mistake, or a mortgage servicing issue? Does the financial company promise to resolve the problem, you make repeated calls over several months, and the problem does not get resolved?

Fortunately, you now have one more accountability tool in your toolbox. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was required by Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 to handle and help resolve consumer complaints. The CFPB also did a smart thing: it publishes the complaint data on the internet. Of course, financial companies hate this and complain, but my bet is that the publicly available data has reduced the number of problems and helps resolve complaints faster than they were fixed before. If you feel you need help on an unresolved issue, you can go to http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaintdatabase/ to file a complaint and also to view other complaints about mortgages, bank accounts, debt collections, student debt, and more.

The CFPB has started issuing monthly reports that will help consumers and counselors understand trends and pinpoint emerging issues. Since 2012, the CFPB has received 650,700 complaints. For June of 2015, the CFPB reports that the top three products/services in terms of complaints in descending order was debt collection, mortgages, and credit reporting.

The database can be sorted by state, issue, company, and resolution status. When looking at Washington DC, complaint volumes increased 10 percent from April through June compared to a year ago (http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201507_cfpb_monthly-complaint-report-vol-1.pdf).  Complaints in DC now run about 577 complaints per 100,000 people which is a higher rate per capita than all the other states! Maryland also has a high per capita rate of 333 per 100,000.

A new feature of the complaints database is consumer complaint narratives. The individual consumer is not identified in order to protect privacy, but the narrative appears (if the consumer wants the narrative displayed). Looking at a couple of narratives reported from consumers in Washington DC shows typical complaints. In one case, a debt collection company kept contacting a consumer about debt his brother owed. In another case, a credit reporting company kept records of medical debt owed even though the consumer reports that the insurance company paid the bill.

It is hard to judge a company’s performance definitively on this database without some additional analysis. The companies that show up frequently are large companies, which by their unwieldy nature, will have some staff or divisions that do not do a good job. An analyst needs to “normalize” the data or figure out complaints per loans or complaints per assets or some other measure like this. The CFPB is currently taking comments on how to “normalize” the data. While consumers should certainly use this database to hold companies accountable, they should also be careful in labeling a company bad until additional analysis is conducted. The CFPB itself scours the database to help companies identify issues or bad offices and in some cases to pursue legal enforcement if misbehavior is due to a systematic pattern or practice.

Overall, the CFPB complaints database is a powerful accountability tool for consumers and counselors. Use it!

 

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

Why Affordable Housing Advocates Should Care about the Purple Line

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Over the years, a Montgomery-based transit advocacy group called Action Committee for Transit (ACT) has been advocating persistently and effectively for a new Metro rail line called the Purple Line that would run from Bethesda to Silver Spring and provide an East-West transit link across Montgomery County. I am a dues-paying member of ACT and live in Bethesda, but I must confess my support for the Purple Line was lukewarm. I commute from Bethesda to Manna, mostly on bicycle. The second choice is transit on days I do not bike. I avoid driving like the plague because I rather have a root canal than sit in traffic and I hate the idea of my idling car polluting the air.

But I was not a strong advocate for the Purple Line. I will not directly benefit from it for most of my travel. I also am a big fan of buses. In the 1990s, I chaired a transit advocacy group called MetroWatch. This was the time period of fiscal crisis in the District and cuts to bus service came fast and furious. I become a bus-first advocate because I saw how critical buses were to middle-income and low-income District residents.

However, I just finished reading Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism by Ben Ross and I am now a fervent supporter of the Purple Line (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/bross/). Ben was President of ACT for many years and is a strong advocate.

Given my affection for buses, I would wonder from time to time why proposals for Rapid Bus were not sufficient to generate the transit volume that the proposed light rail Purple Line would. In theory, rapid bus could possibly come close to light rail transit volume but our politics and culture do not mesh well with rapid bus. It is much easier politically to cut back on bus service and dismantle rapid bus than it is to eviscerate a light rail line once it is built. Culturally, our country may not be ready to adequately support rapid bus. The suburbs, as Ben points out, appeal to people’s egotism and thirst for status. Suburban folk are more likely to ride an elegantly designed light rail line than crowded buses. I don’t like it but Ben is probably right about that. Ben’s blog posts also show how relatively inexpensive the Purple Line would be.

There is also a powerful affordable housing reason to support the Purple Line. Ben describes in great detail how suburban zoning, particularly the emphasis on single family homes and the exclusion of apartments, has driven up housing costs in general and for low- and moderate-income households in particular. Currently, when inner city neighborhoods experience gentrification and become attractive, rents and home values are bid up so high because there are not many alternatives to city living that is less dependent on the automobile. In contrast, if we had more communities in the suburbs and city that were less typically suburban and had higher housing densities, there could be less price pressure and displacement associated with gentrification and demographic changes.

Well, why not just change suburban zoning to allow for more apartments and higher densities? The difficulty is political. There is just too much cultural resistance. On the other hand, if more heavy and light rail gets built, zoning changes become easier as people observe that higher densities work better near rail and that higher densities make rail and neighborhood revitalization more economically viable. Build it, they will come, and the neighborhood will change for the better. Is that pie in the sky or realistic? Based on what has happened in DC and Bethesda neighborhoods with which I am familiar, I think Ben is onto something here.

Communities surrounding the Purple Line are likely to experience increases in housing prices as development heats up after the Purple Line is constructed (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/21888/behold-how-the-purple-line-corridor-is-changing/). Dan Reed suggests extending the price restrictions on low-income rental housing near the future line. Like Ben, Dan states that more housing development could ease the pressure on prices.

In any case, go Purple Line! It might just help affordable housing, even here in the District. Is the book perfect? Not quite. The prose can be difficult in spots if you are not a planner or transportation junkie. Also, Ben knocks buses a little more than I would like. However, he does support buses as essential to a viable transit network (but not as a replacement for rail).  On balance, if you want to understand suburbs, what changes we need, and you are looking for a good read, pick up Ben’s book.

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

The Banks Are Back At It

Here we go again! Banks are back at it, crying foul to new regulations, in return telling some of their largest clients to take their money elsewhere, or be slapped with huge fees. The large financial institutions, including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc., HSBC Holdings PLC, Deutsche Bank AG and Bank of America Corp, have stated that the new regulations have made some of these deposits less profitable. For most banks, deposits have been the usual catalyst for driving growth: more deposits allow banks to loan out more money and bring in more profits. However, with tighter regulations and a smaller amount of loans being generated, banks are beginning to see large deposits as dead weight. This mindset has led to these decisions, decisions that have taken a turn away from some of the fundamental principles and actions typically associated with banking. First and foremost, deposits have usually been seen as the key driver for banks since there is a lower interest rate on money kept in-house and then loans can be made at a higher interest rate. The new rules given by regulators to make our financial systems safer require more cash on-hand so that banks are more resistant to shocks like those seen during the financial crisis of 2008. Many banks feel as if these regulations carry too much liability.

Historically, banks’ fundamental purpose was to serve the credit and banking needs of local communities. While things have changed such as the services offered or the speed of these services, the principle responsibility still remains. Banks put a community’s surplus funds (deposits and investments) to work by lending to people to buy homes and cars, to start and expand businesses, to put their children through college, and for countless other purposes. While times have changed, the central focus shouldn’t. We must develop comprehensive strategies that allow maximum community development, while ensuring our communities are safe guarded from predatory practices or financial crises.

Last week, the Community Development Amendment Act of 2013 passed the District Council; this bill encourages banks who do business with the District to make plans to meet the banking needs of all District residents. There will be a chance for the public to weigh in on banks’ plans and progress once implementation begins in early 2016. We hope for good faith banking partners in the District and a chance to champion improved banking services and products for District residents and neighborhoods that need it the most.