July 15, 2008

Notes From Marion Barry's Housing Hearing

by Kate Perkins, Community Blogger.

Ready for action?

The purpose of Monday's meeting about eliminating the Section VIII housing waiting list was unclear from the beginning. Councilman Marion Barry had called the hearing after earlier this past year Mayor Fenty pledged to eliminate the waiting list for public housing and the housing choice voucher program by January 2011. Barry submitted a bill (Housing Waiting List Elimination Act of 2008) to the council this spring that would require the mayor to submit a plan within 90 days to detail how he plans to go about eliminating the waiting list of individuals seeking housing choice vouchers and placement in public housing by January 1, 2012.

Advocates and representatives from many district nonprofit organizations, free legal clinics, and watchdog organizations joined over 50 individuals who had spent anywhere from a few months to over 15 years of their adult lives on the housing waiting list.

The room revolved around the personality cult of Barry, allowing him an opportunity to gain favor with district residents who showered praises on him, sometimes mistakenly calling him mayor—once even president.

Actively engaged with the crowd, Barry began the meeting —which at points resembled a rally—with an impassioned speech about the need for affordable housing in the district. People in the crowd cheered and gave other verbal affirmations as Barry began, "here we are in the richest country in the world with the economic development happening in Washington at a rapid pace, right down M Street SE, you'll find 8 or 9 cranes. More housing built—but not enough."

Barry openly questioned Mayor Fenty's commitment to elimination of the housing waiting list, given that no new money had been allocated out of either the 2008 or 2009 budget for affordable housing. Sharing with the crowd that the district's annual budget is $9 Billion, Barry said that to eliminate 20,000 current households off the waiting list would cost the district $300 million over the next year at a cost of about $16,000 per family. While no small task, Barry told the crowd that, in his opinion, the housing issues in the district were not a matter of space, but a matter of funding. Criticizing some district spending as "nonsense," he instead asserted he wanted to "spend it on people." He called Mayor Fenty to task, to "put your money where your mouth is." The crowd clapped and cheered him on, especially as he asked for their support and help, to get involved and "tell the mayor how you feel" whenever they got a chance.

For someone who hasn't spent any significant time in Barry's presence, I was impressed with his demeanor and rapport with the public. As Ward 8 Councilman, Barry showed a lot of connection to the low-income DC residents who came to testify about their experiences with housing and the waiting list. Before the witnessing portion of the hearing began, he reassured the many people in the room who had never sat before a public committee before by giving them tips on how to speak in public, encouraging people to be natural and speak "from the heart" and share about their experiences.

He rallied the crowd and expressed a shared sentiment that "just because you don't make as much money as your neighbor or somebody down the street doesn't mean you shouldn't be in affordable housing." With a cheerful atmosphere and a sense of shared commitment to the mission of finding affordable housing, the long meeting became an entertaining event for all involved.

As the testimonies rolled on through the late afternoon, many people told personal stories of living on the DC housing list 5, 10, 15 years waiting for a section VIII voucher. The stories ranged from women who lived in small, roach-infested apartments with 5 or 6 children doing "what I have to do to get by" to complaints about bad experiences with the Housing Authority, to their difficulties with “slum landlords. As they cried, Barry reassured them in a grandfatherly tone, commending them for their courage to share. When residents made these complaints, Barry asked for the names of government workers and landlords, promising to follow up on each issue. Sometimes he promised to make personal calls on the behalf of constituents, confirming exterminations or checking to see if individuals were actually on the list.

Spirits in the room were high as Barry made promises right and left. Early in the day, he agreed to participate in a 48 hour "homeless challenge" with National Coalition for the Homeless, which allows politicians an opportunity to experience homelessness in Washington for a weekend. Responding to doubts that he'd participate, Barry said, "you know me, I'll go anywhere." The room exploded into applause and cheers.

A 19 year old single mother told a heart-wrenching story of moving from several relative's homes to various women's shelters all for short periods of time as she waited for her name to come up for public housing or a housing voucher. She spoke out about verbal abuse from workers at local shelters, disclosing their names at Barry's prompting, which sent the crowd into cheers. Boldly declaring, "I'm a good mother," the young mother questioned why she was not being helped.

Captivated by her story, Barry later used her repeatedly as an example of those who "should be being helped" by the District Housing Authority but are in a hopeless condition because of the length of the waiting list.

After hearing residents pour their hearts and needs out to his attentive ear, Barry invited Michael Kelly, Executive Director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority to the stage. Barry quizzed him about specific stories shared earlier, attempting to hold the institution accountable. Kelly shared the latest number of people on the waiting list (23,418 households, 9,348 families of those are designated as homeless) and also offered some explanation for the seeming endless-ness of the DC housing waiting list. Unlike many peer institutions in the nation, he said, the DC Housing Authority keeps an "open list" that accumulates regardless of whether housing is available or not. Other cities like Chicago only open the list when housing is available—often every 10 years for only a few days.

Not that the meeting was really policy-focused. The public spectacle of a hearing allowed Barry an opportunity to showboat his charisma and love for the people of Washington, restoring hope for some temporarily, but offering no sort of long-term action steps or solutions. I’m still concerned about all the short-term promises he made to individuals (and groups), which more than likely will come to nothing. Moreover, I wonder what will become of the wealth of testimonials and facts that came out during the course of the day. Losing those to deaf ears would be heartbreaking.

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