July 14, 2010

Affordable Housing, or Tent City

Bread for the City client Ca’Vonn Ellis-Smith has lived in Shaw--just down the street from our Northwest center--for more than a decade. This week, however, Ca’Vonn has settled upon a new spot in the neighborhood: in a tent, in the gravelly lot at the corner of 7th and R streets.

Ca’Vonn has struggled with homelessness before; but this is different.

“This is like my Angela Davis moment,” laughs Ca’Vonn. She has taken a leading role in a direct action by ONE DC, a grassroots organizing group that works to build racial and economic equity in our communities. ONE DC successfully won an agreement from Mayor Fenty’s office to subsidize the development of affordable housing on the property -- specifically for families making less than $50,000. (Learn more about the history of these negotiations on ONE DC’s Tent City blog.)

In June, ONE DC learned that this commitment has been dropped. In response, they’ve taken direct action. On Saturday, ONE DC initiated a “territorial occupation” of this land, with Ca’Vonn helping to lead the way. They’ve since erected tents, a library and public art installations, developing what they call “an intentional community.” They’re not planning to leave, they say, until Mayor Fenty agrees to meet with them.

The building across the street from Parcel 42, Ca’Vonn points out, is “going coop” (i.e. opting out of a contract that subsidizes Section 8 housing). This means that many of its residents will lose their homes. Currently, Ca’Vonn receives a Section 8 voucher -- this is the only way that she and her children can afford to stay in their apartment. But even that doesn’t provide peace of mind. “The building I'm living in now has been considering going coop for years -- every year we don't know if our contract is going to get renewed, we don't know if we're going to have to find new housing.”

This experience has prompted Ca’Vonn to learn about housing and, ultimately, engage in direct action with ONE DC -- despite the fact that the tent city is technically an illegal activity. “I went back and forth about whether I would participate. I could be arrested and split from my family. Would I be able to afford legal representation?”

But Ca’Vonn decided to participate. “I'm fighting for affordable housing myself every day, within my building every day,” Ca’Vonn explains. “Why not join forces with the people who are fighting for a right to a decent place to live? We need to make a statement together to make the forces of power - developers, government, whoever - recognize that their plans affect everybody, and that this community should offer opportunities for every class of people.”

[Ca'Vonn Ellis-Smith, pictured right. Read more about One DC’s Tent City on Carlos QC’s blog here. Photo by Carlos.]

She adds: “These developers have built buildings that are huge and expensive and empty. Meanwhile families who've been here for decades are getting pushed out, becoming homeless.”

ONE DC encourages concerned DC residents to contact Mayor Fenty’s office (try Chief of Staff Carrie Kohns at 202.724.8815, or send a message online) and ask him to support the development of affordable housing, in part by meeting with ONE DC to discuss the plans for Parcel 42.

Residents are also invited to come by Parcel 42 to share food, water, “talent,” and fellowship with the people of Tent City; you are welcome to stay the night, too! “This action isn't just for poor people or any one kind of person,” explains Ca’Vonn. “It's for working class, double-income families, single families - it's for a vision of a community in which everyone can participate.”

Contact Rosemary Ndubuizu (http://www.blogger.com/rndubuizu@onedconline.org or 202.232.2915) for more detail.

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