Bread clients face off with Mayor Bowser over housing
Last night, Mayor Bowser held her third and final budget forum of 2016 in the complex of the Greenleaf public housing buildings, though few residents seemed to have been invited to the event. About a dozen Bread for the City clients (including Greenleaf residents), organizers, and allies attended the forum to demand more funding for affordable housing in the mayor’s FY 2017 budget.
According to the mayor’s own numbers, just 2% of DC’s $13 billion budget is spent on housing, despite wide agreement that DC is in a housing crisis. That’s about $280 million per year – just half of what the city spends on the police department.
At least 100 people attended the forum, and the crowd was divided into tables of about eight people each, to formulate a city budget in small groups. Each table was given a symbolic $100 to work with, though there was no option to raise revenues in any way – in fact the city is cutting taxes across the board, despite staggering inequality. (A new study of 2014 shows the top five percent in DC earned 52 times the income of the bottom 20 percent. Meanwhile, the city is sitting on $2 billion in surplus funds, a small fraction of which could improve life for many suffering Washingtonians.)Because the Bread clients in attendance feel the housing pinch most acutely – including a mother and daughter who have been on the Housing Authority voucher waiting list for 15 years, and suffer damaging health impacts from their current housing situation – we all said we would put most or all of the $100 into housing.
The most interesting conversation came when Mayor Bowser herself came to our table. First we challenged her on the prioritization of spending $50 million on the Wizards training facility (including pledging to cover cost overruns), and leaving no significant protections for low-income neighbors to benefit from the massive new development. Bowser argued that the city isn’t kicking anyone out, but offered no real protections from how the development will raise costs of living in the area.
Then, a Bread client named Zonia spoke up about having been on the waitlist for 15 years and needing a place for her and her mother to live. The mayor said it would cost too much money to house all 40,000+ people on the waitlist and that she couldn’t offer housing to Zonia. However, we believe that calculations about what’s too expensive are purely matters of political prioritization.
Lastly, Mayor Bowser claimed that we should be on her side because she has allocated bigger sums toward housing than previous mayors. While this is true – she put about 30% more into housing last year than was in the previous year’s budget – so much more is needed that it is unacceptable for funding to plateau. When we challenged Mayor Bowser on this point, she said, “don’t argue with me!”
No promises, Madam Mayor – people’s lives are depending on it.