Housing Task Force hearing packs room with four hours of passionate testimony

October 23, 2012

At 9:28 pm  last night, Tom Gregory began his testimony by announcing that it was 28 minutes into the presidential debates. That also meant that the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force was 28 minutes beyond the 3 hour window of public comment they had set. For nearly 4 hours, the Task Force took testimony from residents and practitioners who painted a wide and varied story of affordable housing needs and successes.

Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force packed the room at last night’s hearing.

The hearing started with a packed room, with well over 100 people in attendance. The most touching testimonies drew heartfelt responses from the audience, such as when Gilma Merino, a Jubilee tenant with a visual impairment,  had her testimony read by her school-aged son. Or when a tenant recognized long-time housing organizer and advocate Linda Leaks for her help in the creation of their housing cooperative, drawing loud applause. Although energy dwindled in the long hearing, many stayed for hours for a chance to speak or to listen and support others.

The panel Tom was on was typical in its diversity. Tom articulated his concerns that landlords are able to profit unfairly in the housing market. Cheryl Cort, from the Coalition for Smarter Growth argued for better use of public lands for affordable housing. Denice Speed, a Ward 7 resident at Marbury Plaza, spoke out for low income tenants. And Monica Buitrago read the testimony of Nathan Moon, an HIV positive tenant at 1111 Massachusetts Ave. who was unable to attend, and whose tenant association had worked to purchase the property when it was sold. Other participants spoke out about their success as first time homeowners, their concerns that public housing might be lost, and their desire for housing at all income levels.

The Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force was announced in February, 2012, soon after affordable housing was named the number one concern at Mayor Gray’s One City Summit. The 35 members of the Task Force represent an array of housing specialists from government, nonprofits, and for-profit organizations. The members were appointed by the Mayor, and Harry Sewell has said he hoped to have recommendations from the Task Force to Mayor Gray by January, so their report can be considered as the Mayor’s office prepares the Fiscal Year 2014 budget.

The hearing began with a brief presentation of data on local housing need and a video called the “Miracle at East Lake” telling the story of East Lake in Atlanta, where public housing was replaced by mixed income housing, leading to lower crime and improved education outcomes. There was also a brief presentation of data collected by the Task Force by Harry Sewell, director of the DC Housing Finance Agency and co-chair of the Task Force.

The Task Force is considering a wide range of housing issues, which are on their website, along with a lot of useful data. Similarly, the issues raised at the hearing were diverse as well. Those testifying overwhelmingly reflected the need for more affordable housing. Split about half and half between those who represented organizations and those who represented themselves, over 30 people took this opportunity to be heard. Two issues rose time and gain.

Manna staff and homeowners testify at Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force hearing about the importance of the Home Purchase Assistance Program

One was the Housing Production Trust Fund. This local funding source for housing production and preservation came up in the testimony of Marilyn Kresky-Wolff, Executive Director of Open Arms Housing, when called for doing more of the same: use the housing programs we have to create successful programs like Open Arms, which serves chronically homeless women. A tenant leader speaking through an interpreter also referenced the Trust Fund. His tenant association had hoped to maintain their housing as affordable through the tenant purchase process, but insufficient funds in the Trust Fund made it financially impossible, even though they had nonprofits who were interested in working with them. Blaise Rastello from Transitional Housing Corporation encouraged city leaders to use major projects like Walter Reed to help fund the Trust Fund. It’s unsurprising the Trust Fund got a lot of attention. Low funding levels in recent years has led the Task Force to include as one of its five working groups “Rethinking Local Funding” which is tasked with looking specifically at funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund.

Another program that was highlighted was the Housing First – or Permanent Supportive Housing– program. One of DC’s smallest and newest programs, this program targets the chronically homeless with housing and wrap-around services. According to Jean Badalamenti of Miriam’s Kitchen, “the District made great strides toward ending chronic homelessness when it launched the permanent supportive housing program in 2008.” John McDermott, who also testified at the hearing, was one of many people people that have benefitted from the Housing First program. He spoke about how, before being diagnosed with major illnesses, he had worked and made a good living. Now he was thankful to the city for the support that he had gotten. But that wasn’t enough. Like many others, he spoke out for more funding to address the unmet housing needs in the District. “We need an equal and balanced approach,” he said. “[Where] everyone who needs housing can get it.”

The hearing started with a packed room, with well over 100 people in attendance. The most touching testimonies drew heartfelt responses from the audience, such as when Gilma Merino, a Jubilee tenant with a visual impairment  had her testimony read by her school-aged son. Or when a tenant recognized long-time housing organizer and advocate Linda Leaks for her help in the creation of their housing cooperative, drawing loud applause. Although energy dwindled in the long hearing, many stayed for hours for a chance to speak or to listen and support others.

A second hearing is scheduled for November 14. Although the location is not yet set, it is going to be located east of the Anacostia River.

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