The affordable housing lobby in D.C., feeling slighted by this last budget go-round, is about to double down on its agenda of increasing the amount of funding for transitional, rental, and homeownership assistance in the District.
On July 15th, the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development will kick off its campaign for a “Continuum of Affordable Housing,” or a series of options from homeless shelters to transitional housing to rental to homeownership. The launch will center around a policy paper outlining a five year plan for getting the District back on track to the goals set in 2006 by the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force, using old-fashioned rallies and grassroots organizing.
Last night, though, CNHED held a pre-launch pep rally to rev up the faithful. They’d finished a new advocacy video featuring the heads of the major non-profit housing groups—Mi Casa, Enterprise Community Partners, Jubilee Housing, etc.—as well as beneficiaries of their programs. It felt like a campaign spot, with encomiums to the importance of affordable housing from residents suddenly fading to ominous music and text on the screen: “But, affordable housing is NOT a priority in Washington…”
Then, the graphs: D.C. spends $1.33 for every $100 on housing, a tiny sliver of what is spent on education, public safety, and human services. Then, the children: Big, limpid eyes staring out at the audience. These people mean business.
The night’s main event, though, was a spoken word performance written and directed by Holly Bass, who has all sorts of social justicey artistic cred (she’s the poet-in-residence at Busboys and Poets, for crying out loud). To put together the piece, Bass interviewed a former heroin addict, a single mother, and a Salvadoran immigrant, writing scripts for actors to channel their experiences. [CORRECTION, July 14: The actors interviewed their subjects and wrote the scripts; Bass directed the production.]
The effect is a little strange. Gayle Danley plays the part of Carlos Arevalo, affecting a Latino accent to tell his story of escaping El Salvador to getting a job in Washington and eventually organizing tenants to buy an apartment bulding. In the middle of it all, though, Danley admonishes the audience: “Do I see you judging him?” she said violently. “I can smell the judgment in this room. You with your trenchcoat and options.”
Carlos’ successful tenant purchase was rendered as a victory against an evil, faceless giant. “Hungry developers,” she called them. “You know they ain’t nothing but crack dealers crap builders in blue suits.”
Each of the three stories took a dramatic turn for the better in intersecting with Mi Casa, So Others Might, and Habitat for Humanity, turning each performance into a morality tale for how affordable housing agencies change lives. Perhaps true enough, but the mediated message sounded more canned and caricatured than it might have been had the protagonists been asked to tell their stories firsthand.
Still, Bass is hoping to take the show on the road as part of CNHED’s campaign. Councilmember Michael Brown*, in one of his favorite tropes, reminded the audience that some important people still need convincing.
“I have a lot of colleagues who don’t believe that there are people who need affordable housing in this city,” he said. “It’s like what? There are poor people?”
* Since Councilmember Kwame Brown was invited but did not attend, we are forced to conclude that the other Brown may be the owner of this oh-so-proletarian H3.