DC Tenants Union draws attention to affordability crisis
The DC Tenants Union met on July 20, 2019 at the All Souls Church on 16th Street in Washington, D.C. Visitors and union members exchanged stories about how increasing rent prices have affected them and what they are trying to do about it.
DC Tenants Union is one of a handful of organizations representing tenant organizing and advocacy by tenants in the Washington D.C area. Another organization, TENAC.org held a rally in April at Columbia Heights. Tenants and renters are decrying attempts by landlords to gentrify their building. Common complaints include poor maintenance despite rental agreements; coercing tenants to leave; picking on vulnerable residents, especially those dependent on housing vouchers; and using fear tactics.
The tactics consist of a variety of disguises. Participants serving two masters can play divisive roles. They can deemphasize important matters, such as the humongous underfunding of public housing and housing security needs, while disproportionate attention is played to small gains.
For instance, according to GrassrootsDC.org, the Mayor’s 2019 is grossly inadequate especially for those living on the margins or in the lowest income bracket. Those in the 0-30% AMI lack affordable housing spending by $88 million, while those experiencing chronic homelessness whether individuals or families are underfunded by over $20 million dollars. Those living in public housing are experiencing underfunding in building maintenance on the order of $343 million.
“The lack of investment in housing for residents at 0-30% AMI and over-investment in 80% AMI and above are both troubling and reveal a lack of commitment to racial and economic equity in DC.”—GrassrootsDC
The Area Median Income (AMI) adopted by the DC Zoning Commission is based on a median household income of $76,020 for a single-person household in 2016. Obviously luxury apartment developers aspire to maximize their profit by normalizing the range of affordable units above 50% AMI. Area residents at 0-30% AMI, meaning those households earning less than $22,806 per year, are not adequately accommodated. There is a chronic shortage of housing and underfunding for persons earning less than $22,806 per year; similarly for families such as 4-person households earning less than $32,580 per year.
AMI forces DC residents into deeper poverty
These caps are unrealistic enough that many persons are being forced to commute to Maryland where the rents are cheaper. However according to Greater Greater Washington, every affordable housing program in the region now uses AMI calculations to determine eligibility. The upshot appears to be that while families earning 30 percent AMI or lower are eligible for housing vouchers, depending upon vouchers at a time when President Trump is proposing slashing HUD subsidies to the tune of billions of dollars is dicey. For instance, apartment owners will give notice they no longer receive vouchers, or managers will refuse to consider voucher-dependent applicants. Trump, a mega-developer himself, is eager to starve HUD of billions of dollars in funding, while allowing housing projects to become more dilapidated—for megadevelopers the silver-vein is ripe when buildings are decayed to the point of condemnation and ready to be sold quickly and cheaply.
The fact that anyone can fall into the gap was evident because the hall was filled. It appeared that nearly 300 people were involved from organizers and volunteers, to union members and visitors. Church members, Democratic Socialists of America, and Latino Economic Development Center served as sponsors for the event according to DC.Curbed.com. Leaders from the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development (CNHED), an umbrella group of community organizations united in protecting economic and housing opportunities, were present as facilitators. The over-arching goal is to help low- to moderate-income residents stay in their housing and formulate ways to create a city-wide tenants union.
Several tenant union leaders shared their story on how they fought to protect their homes rather than face eviction. Juanita of Ward 8 described how people in her housing complex, a development with 394 units, established a legal agreement with guarantees on rent control, building a new community room, and joint residential ownership. Sylvia, fluent in Spanish and English, told how their tenant union has just signed a note to buy their building, one that was previously slated for redevelopment in a highly gentrified neighborhood. Others disclosed how they were forced to organize due to persistent problems such as mice, mold, or other pests posing as a nuisance.
Courage needed in brave new world
The courage of local residents in an era of aggressive development with a government headed by a “Developer-in-Chief” cannot be understated. Area realtors and developers can afford to hire lawyers and they have even shutdown some groups or forced them to go underground. (TENAC.org’s website is down right now.) The Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Bing rewrite their algorithms to alter or scramble search results that bury grassroots organizations under look-a-likes, raise red herrings (x-rated sites), or shut sites down under pretexts such as platform incompatibility or labeling as unsafe or insecure sites.
Locally, for the noveau riche, the fight against skyrocketing housing prices is sidelined when those living in luxury apartments are caught up in the fun, fast-paced, urban-consumerist life-style of which D.C. is trademark to, but where too often “hip” does not include “hop.” Even the fight for historical preservation is increasingly falling upon deaf ears. For instance, a fight to turn Chinatown in Washington, DC into a historical preserve fell flat.
According to Greater Greater Washington:
“In 2013, the DC Preservation League submitted a proposal to DC’s Office of Historic Preservation, asking it to include Chinatown in its list of historic areas. The proposal would protect the Friendship Archway and 19 buildings, including Wah Luck House and Museum Square, and consider them to either have historical value or be connected to buildings that have historical value. It has languished since submission and Yi [Chen] said that any concerned citizens should write to the Office of Planning and the Historic Preservation Review Board and encourage them to review the proposal.“
Yi Chen is a local filmmaker whose documentary “CHINATOWN” captured the imagination of Asian Americans and elevated the discussion about the erosion of once segregated ethnic neighborhoods such as Chinatowns. As gentrification and land values increase, business owners are divided amongst themselves whether to cash in on the bonanza or fight to preserve their heritage and rights for the elderly, the disabled, and poor to affordable community gathering places of which Wah Luck House is a symbol.
According to writer Joanne Tang, ethnic enclaves are not merely preservations but keeping alive connections and contributions that Chinese in America have made in cities all across America:
“The seniors at Wah Luck House and Museum Square aren’t just struggling over affordable housing. Chinese-Americans fought for a piece of the city they could call their own, and now they’re having trouble saving their enclaves. Keeping Wah Luck House and Museum Square affordable would be a small step in preserving a significant piece of DC’s immigrant history, giving underserved Chinese-Americans a voice in their own neighborhood, and keeping alive a connection to a shared cultural past for many Chinese-Americans in the region.”
Having a chance to view the film screening at Atlas Performing Arts Center during the Literary Arts & Performance Poetry Festival in 2013, this reporter can testify that it was a memorable event which sparked lively discussion. It was the motivation for two articles at Asian-American Forum about “Gentrification Engulfing Chinatowns.”
In part 1, this author concludes:
“With lower-income class definitions translating into anyone earning less than 50,000 per year, who are the new sustainable megacities being designed for? Clearly, it is not for traditional Asian immigrants or those who struggle to make ends meet and who are grateful to be able to locate semi-independent communal housing for their elderly.“
Grassroots organizations fighting for the rights of Asian Americans to affordable housing are hard to find and chronically underfunded, but at least in New York City, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) has mobilized on critical urban justice issues. In October 2012, its leaders were among the first to provide much needed help to stranded low-income Chinatown residents trapped inside the Confucius Plaza highrise during Hurricane Sandy.
DC Tenants Union plans for the future
At the recent Washington DC Tenants Union Townhall, to balance things out, DC Housing Authority did have a representative present. A native Washingtonian, the DCHA representative stated that she has worked for tenants housing since she was 13 years old.
“This tenants union is very necessary…Working for a moratorium on demolition of public housing…having diversity…and fighting disenfranchisement of poor people…are all very necessary.”
The meeting was plentifully spirited, including sporadic chants (“Housing is a human right! That is why we have to fight!”), music, and break out groups. In various Wards, particularly in Columbia Heights, the multifamily housing units are often occupied by immigrant working families, and their safety and security are threatened not only from loss of housing and jobs, but also family breakups and deportation threats. And while many laws are in place notably through the Office of the Tenant Advocate and Landlord-Tenant codified laws, actually wading through the available resources, setting up meetings, and demonstrating the will to enact TOPAC requires much persistence.
Despite the heatwave outdoors, the townhall was a success: new Ward officers and members were sworn in, and dates agreed on for upcoming meetings.
For older residents and those on a limited income, maintaining a fixed residency can make all the difference in the world. By collaborating with other groups including housing agencies, developers, community development corporations, small businesses, lenders, intermediaries, and service agencies, DC Tenants Union plans to raise public awareness while growing support for a more inclusive locally housed community.
(photos by AGN)