Why I’m excited about the Tenant Town Hall

June 22, 2012

This Saturday is the 5th annual Tenant Town Hall, which is one of my favorite community advocacy events of the year. Why? Because seeing tenants organize and advocate for their community needs is exciting and inspiring.

The Tenant Town Hall is organized by the Latino Economic Development Center and provides a platform for tenants to address elected officials and agency directors in a public setting. Building on inspiration from recent and historic tenant organizing victories, this year’s Tenant Town Hall will focus on the increased need and opportunity for funding affordable housing for low-income tenants.

The Town Hall especially highlights the voices of low and moderate income renters who struggle with a variety of housing concerns. The Town Hall also provides a multilingual space, with interpretation into Chinese, Amharic and Spanish, that allows tenant leaders from across the district to meet and learn from each other and share resources. Speakers at this year’s event will include leaders in local and national housing struggles and highlight the need for quality and affordable housing in our neighborhoods.

For many residents, preserving the low-cost housing they are currently in is the only way for them to afford staying in their communities. For some, like Sharon Lewis, lack of funds in the Housing Production Trust Fund are making that process more difficult. Although the Trust Fund was restored in this year’s budget, low levels of funding over the last few years, have made it difficult for tenants and developers to access funding. The Trust Fund is a key tool that organized tenant associations can use to keep affordable housing by allowing tenants or a third-party buyer to purchase the building and committing to ongoing affordability. Without these funds the best resolution Sharon and fellow residents most likely could expect to negotiate with the new landlord would include either buy outs, money to leave their neighborhood, or a voluntary agreement that will raise rents.

An exciting element of the Tenant Town Hall, is the multi-racial, multi-lingual community that is fostered. This year, another voice speaking out for affordable housing are Ethiopian youth who live in low-cost housing and participate in SMART Youth, a program of Many Languages One Voice. These youth will speak to the importance that housing plays in the other aspects of their lives — impacting education, community, and civic engagement.

An area of focus that is new to this year’s town hall is a focus on public housing. Schyla Pondexter-Moore is a former resident of Highland Dwellings, a public housing complex that DC Housing Authority is hoping to redevelop with funds from the Promise Communities Program. Though funds are not in place Schyla and her neighbors have already been moved out of their homes with a promise that they can someday return. Redevelopment of public housing can lead to fewer units of housing that are affordable to very low income residents, and the displacement of existing residents during the redevelopment process. When public housing tenants are actively engaged, they can have control over the process, ensuring that they are not permanently displaced and do not lose their affordable housing. The tenant leaders at Highland are a testament to that truth. The tenant association got an agreement that residents returning after the redevelopment do not have to reapply for their housing.

No one knows the importance of tenant organizing better than the leaders of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT). They are in town for their national convention, and will join the town hall to speak to the national needs for investment in public housing, and the successes of low-income tenant organizing around the country.

As always, the Tenant Town Hall promises to be an exciting opportunity to hear from DC’s tenant leaders, inspiring action and strengthening tenant resources and protections — just like it has every other year.

The Tenant Town Hall will take place this Saturday June 23rd, at 1:00 pm at National City Christian Church, 5 Thomas Circle. The author is the organizer for the Housing For All Campaign which is one of the sponsors of this event.

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