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Affordable Housing Gets A Lot of Attention

There was a lot of talk about affordable housing at yesterday's marathon D.C. Council meeting.

Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) led the charge on increasing parking fees to support a popular housing program and eliminating a housing authority list where the wait an apartment with affordable rent can be nearly 10 years.

First up was an emergency tax exemption for a mixed-used housing project, the site of the Anthony Bowen YMCA at the corner of 14th and W Street N.W. in Graham's ward. Taking the lead, Graham dubbed it a perfect project, a nice building with luxury units and affordable housing. On top of that, it would double as a showcase center for the YMCA, complete with a pool. Moreover, the YMCA is named after Anthony Bowen, an emancipated slave. For this Graham garnered support from his colleagues with plenty of pats on the back.

"I think this is a great project," said Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

With the wind at his back, Graham moved on to his Equitable Parking Meter Rates Act of 2008, which sought to jack up the cost of parking downtown from $1 to $2. The purpose, said Graham, was to raise money to funnel into programs such as the Home Purchase Assistance Program known as HPAP. The program gives low-income home-buyers a loan averaging about $50,000 to qualify for buying a home in the District.

Graham was sailing along with his explanation of the program when Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) pushed back. An increase to $2 on weekdays and Saturdays under Graham's plan would make parking downtown more expensive than parking in pricey Manhattan, he said. "I could support this...if it were part of some type of demand analysis," Mendelson said. Is there? he asked.

Councilmember At-Large Carol Schwartz (R) didn't like it either. District residents could avoid downtown and shop in the suburbs on the weekends at those prices.

David Catania (D-At Large) offered a compromise. Cut out the weekend rate hike and he would vote for it. Schwartz climbed aboard after Graham immediately agreed, earning him more pats on the back.

Emboldened, Graham walked confidently onto a trap door with his next proposal, the Tenant Protection Emergency Act that sought to bar the city from closing down an apartment building in the dead of winter, throwing out tenants for wrongs conducted by a slumlord.

Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) stiffened, saying the resolution made no sense. Cheh fired off questions. Why? What if the property was really bad? What if the tenants were in real danger?

Mendelson wanted to know how many buildings were closed every year. Graham had no solid answers.

Cheh said the bill seemed well-intentioned but not so well thought out.

The debate ended when Chairman Vincent C. Gray basically said the resolution needed work and council business moved on.

Next came the Waiting List Elimination Act of 2008, sponsored by Barry. It passed unanimously on a voice vote. Everyone could get behind an intent to find housing for the 25,000 families on the housing authority's list within two years. The problem is finding the money that helps find the housing. According to the authority, between $300 million and $400 million a year is needed, based on the cost of $15,000 a year per unit. That's the mayor's problem, Barry said.

Finally, the council dealt with HPAP. There had been a terrible mistake, Gray said. One hand of city government -- the council -- took $11 million out of the $34 million program without knowing that the other hand -- the mayor's office -- wanted to remove another $11 million. With an $8 million contract awarded to the Greater Washington Urban League to process applications for the program, that left about $4 million -- peanuts that couldn't cover applicants who were bound to become eligible for a housing loan.

What did the council do? It blamed Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. But after some discussion, it seemed that the finger pointing was poorly aimed. Whether HPAP is funded appears to be entirely in the council's hands. In order to cut $11 million and devote it to other projects, the mayor would have to get the council's approval, and the council passed a declaration basically telling Fenty not to even try. The $11 million that the council redirected from the program to the cash reserve in case of a revenue shortfall can be easily withdrawn in February and given back to the program.

So if it's up to the council, why all the fuss over HPAP?

"To me it's to send a message (to the mayor) not to send an $11 million programming here," Thomas said.

Darryl Fears

By Marcia Davis  |  December 17, 2008; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Affordable Housing , D.C. Council  
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