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During one of Housing Complex’s first days on the job last March, she went to the John A. Wilson Building to introduce herself to one lawmaker in particular: At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who also chairs the body’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization. Bonds shook this reporter’s hand over the dais, and said of housing policy: “It’s just so complicated.”
Housing policy, land use, urban development, homelessness—these are nuanced, sensitive, wonky issues, undeniably complicated. And in the months since that conversation, HC has spent considerable effort trying to get Bonds to talk about her work, including attempts to discuss bills she herself introduced. But not once has the councilmember agreed to a sit-down interview or phone call in that time.
We’ve had some run-ins. In June of 2018, this reporter attended Councilmember Bonds’ 2018 primary watch party at the National Democratic Club. At the time, when HC greeted Bonds, who was surrounded by campaign and Council staff, she replied that City Paper historically “hasn’t been very fair” to her. (City Paper had recently published an article detailing the big-name donors who contributed to her campaign.) So after Bonds officially won another term, HC again reached out to her staff in an attempt to schedule an extended interview.
“I’m extremely interested in having an open conversation with CM Bonds about her specific goals for this Council period […] She mentioned several times last year that she was unhappy with the way she’s been covered in City Paper and other outlets. I think this would be a great opportunity to better understand her vision for her committee and hear more about what kind of policy she’ll plan on backing over the next two years,” HC wrote to her communications staff on Jan. 4.
Months of email-volleyball later, and no dice. Bonds most recently denied a request for comment on the mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget, which the councilmember has lauded for its investment in the construction and preservation of affordable housing.
So on March 26, two days ahead of the housing committee’s first budget oversight hearing, HC went to the councilmember’s office and waited for her to show up. At first, staff warned that Bonds wouldn’t be available until 3 p.m. But shortly after she arrived at 10:30, her communications director agreed to coordinate an interview at “a hard 10 minutes.” Below is a transcript of that conversation, which clocked in at just under nine. It has been very lightly edited for clarity.
Housing Complex: I wanted to talk to you a bit about the budget ahead of Thursday’s budget oversight hearing. I know you’ve been very vocally supportive of what the mayor has proposed. But I’d love to hear a little bit more about what specific investments you’re excited about.
Anita Bonds: I’m excited about the investments in total that have been made in housing. I would naturally be excited about it because, you know the situation with housing in the District of Columbia. So it’s—I feel like it’s finally coming to a head, this issue of a housing crisis. And one where we’ve got to provide for all of our residents, so that’s what is very much at the top of my thought process as it relates to housing.
I am very much aware that we have attempted over the years to address what we consider our most vulnerable in housing. That’s how we got so much emphasis, you know, a couple of years ago on the homeless population. So now it looks like we’re thinking a great deal about those that are not homeless but could very easily be homeless if prices continue to escalate and their incomes remain stagnant. So that’s, that’s what I see in the mayor’s budget as a way to begin to address that population.
Years ago we had a great emphasis, the government had a great emphasis on workforce housing. That seemed to have been where we needed to be and um, somehow that kind of petered out. We thought that if we addressed the issue of firefighters and police officers and teachers, well, then we were getting there. And yes, that’s a big part of workforce housing. But there are others that are in workforce, it’s sort of like our lower-middle class from many years ago.
HC: There has been, as you know, criticism [from] a lot of organizations that say the mayor’s budget doesn’t do enough to invest in permanent supportive housing, targeted affordable housing, ERAP (Emergency Rental Assistance Program), because the proposal meets only a fraction of the total need—
AB: —Well that’s a little contrary to what I read. One of the groups said, in fact, they gave the mayor high marks for investing in permanent supportive housing. Where they differ with her is not having enough vouchers, in their estimation, um, and you know I’m not sure I know where those figures come from. I look to the government to be wise and thoughtful and accurate in their count. So if any of the groups have some real data, I certainly would like to see it and have an opportunity to digest it.
HC: What do you think about what the mayor has invested in public housing? More broadly, do you think that the state of public housing warrants a greater investment in its maintenance, repair, or operational funds?
AB: Alright, well let me answer it my way. Because that was a loaded question. I would be crazy living here all my life and not being able to observe what public housing looks like, what people have said, over the last four years in my hearings they’ve said that public housing is deteriorating where they live. There are many problems in the interior of their units, so yes I’m concerned.
But one of the things that I have to grapple with is this issue of the fact that public housing is federal housing. HUD has decided most recently that it’s almost going to disinvest in public housing. So across the country we’re faced with the same kind of issues [as we are] here, and that is, you know, diminishing, if any, receipts from HUD. And now the local jurisdictions have to take care of the public housing stock. We happen to have one of the more robust stocks in all of the country and so it’s going to take us a while.
I am happy that the Authority and its leadership did their assessment when the new leader came on last year in the fall. I asked him, I said, tell me please, what will it take to—not make it beautiful, but make the properties you know very livable, inviting, for the residents. [Ed. note: DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett joined the Authority in 2017, not 2018.] So he came back and he said, [sighs] that’s more than a billion dollars. I said OK, now tell us, what categories? Categories of, how many roofs, you know, what have you? He said, well let’s not go at it that way. Let’s go at it from the standpoint of, let’s talk about the interior. Let’s talk about removing mold and lead and what have you. […] Hence he came up with a number––I think $343 million necessary to immediately go out and make some changes. We even found lead, you probably know about this, at Park Morton.
And so Park Morton is public housing, but it’s in this new package that we call New Communities [Initiative], where the city is going to put forth all these dollars for renovation. So we did get a little bit of money allocated for that. I think it takes about $6 million, and I believe we came up with about $6 million to fix that. People are going to say, why are you putting money in property that next year may be demolished? Well, people live there, that’s why we’re putting money in it today. So those are the kind of things I know are going on. I know that ultimately because of the independence of the agency, it may have a bond issue. And I’m very excited about that. Because it will mean that it can raise money to do the necessary repairs.
HC: To follow up on this issue of the $343 million—it is a sizable ask, and I don’t even know that the Housing Authority has asked the Council for that full amount. But with the mayor’s budget, as you know, there’s a $15 to $20 million fund for capital repairs, but [that’s] an appropriation from an earlier year that just hasn’t been used yet. So do you think that what the mayor has proposed this year is enough to address or chip away at that $343 million that DCHA needs?
AB: I think … I’m not sure. We haven’t gotten the survey yet. I think the housing—I have asked the Housing Authority to be very specific about how much they need based on how much can they spend in this fiscal year. To do that for the next three years. Their proposition of $1.3 billion covers, oh, maybe 15 years. Well, you know all of this, so there you go.
Emmanuel Brantley, Bonds’ communications director, then interjected to say that the councilmember “need[ed] to go upstairs” for a Committee of the Whole hearing. He advised City Paper to send follow-up questions via email. These are the questions we sent the councilmember, who did not respond:
- You remarked that the mayor’s $20 million investment in workforce housing compensated for other initiatives to deliver affordable middle-class housing that “petered out” over the years. What were some of these successful initiatives that D.C. stopped investing in, and would you continue to support them in the next fiscal year?
- You acknowledge that the mayor’s budget does not include significant additional financial support for new housing vouchers. Would you recommend allocating more money for vouchers? Why or why not?
- You bring up the lead that was discovered in Park Morton and acknowledge that there are people living in danger of those conditions. Would you support funding more vouchers to re-home existing residents interested in moving out of the property?
- In response to my last question, you say “we haven’t gotten the [DCHA] survey yet.” DCHA made public the results from its housing survey in December. What information are you waiting on to determine how much money the city should invest in public housing?
- Do you have any reason to believe that DCHA would not be able to spend any additional funds allocated to it by the D.C. Council?
- You said that one of the things you “have to grapple with” is the “issue of the fact that public housing is federal housing.” To what extent do you believe local jurisdictions are responsible for compensating for the federal government’s lack of interest or ability in maintaining public housing?