In Our Backyard: Responding to the Affordable Housing Crisis


Low- and moderate-income people across the country are facing a rental affordability crisis. TalkPoverty’s backyard in Washington, D.C. is no exception.

Over the past decade, low-income D.C. residents have been crushed under the burden of skyrocketing rents, stagnant incomes, and a loss of half of all low-cost rental units. The loss of affordable housing is counterproductive because preserving old units is less expensive than building new ones. Due to the lack of affordable housing, almost two-thirds of low-income households in D.C. pay 50% of their incomes toward rent, which is double the amount recommended by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Homelessness in D.C. is rising as a result of this crisis. The city’s total homeless population increased 13% since last year, and family homelessness has risen 50% since 2010. The rise of homelessness is expected to cost the District tens of millions of dollars—costs which could have been partially averted by a stronger commitment to preserving affordable housing.

But numbers alone can’t tell this story. They can’t illustrate the emotional harm homeless families have suffered while living in shelters with no privacy, few showers, and the lights on at night. They can’t show the frustration many employed homeless people feel when they work and work but still can’t afford the city’s high rents.

The rise in the homeless population was avoidable. D.C. already has an effective public financing tool at its disposal to preserve affordable units. The city’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) requires that the landlord give tenants the right to purchase the property before it is sold. This tool is supported by the unique D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) First Right Purchase Program, which provides low-income tenants with public financing so that they can exercise their TOPA rights and purchase their buildings. The program empowers low-income tenants because many cannot access private loans or afford private financing payments. While other communities may have tenant right to purchase laws, it is rare that tenants are provided public financing to exercise those rights.

When funded, the First Right Purchase Program is highly effective. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that the program—funded largely by Community Development Block Grants and a Housing Production Trust Fund—has helped preserve nearly 1,400 units of affordable housing over the past decade. However, due to cuts in these funding sources, preservation fell from 292 units in 2008, to only 35 units in 2012, and 28 units in 2013. It is hardly a coincidence that homelessness spiked at a time when the city and the federal government dedicated few resources to preserving affordable housing.

Low-income residents of Columbia Heights—one of D.C.’s most diverse neighborhoods—are experiencing the lack of affordable housing firsthand. However, through TOPA, many are fighting back, allying with community-based organizations and mobilizing to protect and expand affordable housing in the area.


The Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development held a walking tour on “Keeping Columbia Heights Affordable.” The tour visited several sites in where affordable housing had been successfully preserved or built. Photo by Aimee Custis for Coalition for Smarter Growth.

At the St. Dennis Apartments, a management company tried to force out long-term residents so that the affordable units could be converted to lucrative luxury condos. The company bought out a number of long-term residents and intimidated others into moving out. However, one family of three refused to leave the building.  For a long time, the only sign of life in the St. Dennis building was the light in the family’s window.

in our backyard

A photo of the St. Dennis Apartments, which provides affordable housing for individuals living below 60% of the area median income. Residents successfully fended off efforts to convert the building into luxury condos.

In many other areas of the country, a low-income family would have few options to prevent the sale and conversion of their building. However, by working with the NHT Enterprise Preservation Corporation & National Housing Trust as well as the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, the family was able to form a tenant association, secure financing, and purchase the building the day before their TOPA rights expired. As a result, a valuable building was preserved as affordable housing.


Yesenia Rivera of the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) (left) and Ruth Chavez (right), who serves as Secretary of a tenant association for the 3115 Mt. Pleasant St. building, discuss their desire to use TOPA rights and the DC First Right Purchase Program to purchase and preserve the building as a cooperative for low-income residents. D.C. has a system where organizations like LEDC are contracted by the city to assist low-income tenants in organizing themselves. Photo by Aimee Custis for Coalition for Smarter Growth.

In D.C., we’ve seen that TOPA and an adequately funded First Right Purchase Program can effectively preserve affordable housing for low-income people. But due to Congressional gridlock, it is highly unlikely that there will be any additional federal funds for affordable housing programs. That makes it all the more critical that the D.C. government continue its recently strong commitment to funding its Housing Production Trust Fund.

The issue of a shortage in affordable housing is hardly limited to the nation’s capital.  Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has said that, “We are in the midst of the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known.” The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, supported by a well-funded First Right Purchase Program, provides a model for one way communities can respond to this crisis.





What We’re Reading this Week

Is it Friday already? Welcome back to “What We’re Reading this Week,” where we share 5 must-read articles about poverty in America that grapple with critical issues, inspire us to action, challenge us, and push us to see both problems and solutions from new angles.

Check out our top reads of the week:

Three Steps We Can Take to Solve Poverty, From Someone Who Knows Firsthand, by Tianna Gaines-Turner (Moyers & Company)

When my son was sick, I had to stay at the hospital with him, so I couldn’t go to work; my husband had to stay home with our twin babies, so he couldn’t work. Here’s the problem: neither of us had paid sick leave, so we lost hours on the job, and we lost pay, too. The result was we could not afford to pay our rent on time, nor our light bill. From there, we became homeless.

As to be expected, Paul Ryan’s most recent War on Poverty hearing included stale, demeaning rhetoric from some members of Congress about poverty. For instance, according to Representative Tom Rice of South Carolina, “the only way out of poverty is to be self-reliant and find yourself a job.” Lucky for the American people, we had a game-changer: Tiana Gaines-Turner, the first person actually living in poverty to testify. This week, our first-must read comes from Ms. Gaines-Turner, who published a list of policy recommendations to alleviate poverty that she had included in her testimony. As Gaines-Turner states, “It’s time to call in the experts. My family, my neighbors and people like me know the solutions.” We couldn’t agree more.  Her recommendations are comprehensive and strikingly commonsense, because they are informed by real experiences.

Want to hear more from Ms. Gaines-Turner about her experience testifying before the House of Representatives? Check out her interview with Melissa Harris Perry on MSNBC:


It is Illegal for Homeless People to Sit on the Sidewalk in More than Half of U.S. Cities, by Scott Keyes (ThinkProgress)

Criminalization is an ineffective approach for the simple fact that it does “nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness.” These laws do not provide housing to poor people, or help alcoholics with their disease, or provide childcare to struggling parents. They simply trap homeless people in a cycle that criminalizes their very existence.

In 9% of U.S. cities, it is against the law to share your food with a homeless person. Yes, you read that correctly. This is just one of many kinds of anti-homeless ordinances that have been cropping up across the United States in recent years. Keynes presents data from a recent National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty study that found sharp increases in laws criminalizing homelessness since 2009. These measures are not just cruel; they’re lousy policy. Keynes explains that tax payers spend millions of dollars each year to jail homeless men and women for “quality-of-life” offenses. As it turns out, this policy approach is three times more expensive than an alternative that actually addresses the root issue: giving the homeless a place to live.

Obama Should Set His Sights Higher, by Katrina vanden Heuvel (The Washington Post)

The U.S. government is the largest employer of low-wage workers in the nation, with the $1.3 trillion it spends on purchasing goods and services. The president, standing in the proud tradition of Roosevelt, could issue a Good Jobs Executive Order that would reward companies who pay their workers a living wage, allow them a voice at the workplace without having to go on strike, adhere to federal workplace safety and fair labor standards and limit the pay of their chief executives to some reasonable ratio to that of their average workers.

How should President Obama react to Republican threats to sue over his use of executive orders? According to vanden Heuvel, he should “double down and raise the stakes” by enacting a Good Jobs Executive Order, which could put 21 million Americans on the road to the middle class through measures like living wages. Vanden Heuvel contextualizes the need for a Good Jobs Executive Order by linking the historical decline of unions to today’s staggering inequality. Of course, she recognizes that low-wage worker protections will not come without furious pushback from corporate and conservative forces. However, vanden Heuvel asserts, “well-paid, productive workers aren’t simply an idle luxury; they are a vital necessity to any prosperous economy.”

Should Housing Policy Support Renters More? The Opinion Pages: Room for Debate (New York Times)

In many of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, buying a home again looks like a risky investment, and in places like Boston, Miami and Washington prices have risen enough that buying is no longer the bargain it seemed to be a few years ago. That perhaps explains why the American public is now divided on whether homeownership is a good long-term investment, and a majority now see homeownership as less appealing than it once was. Should housing policy be more balanced, supporting rental housing and homeownership on a more equal footing?

Smart housing policy is essential to our goal of cutting poverty in half in the next decade. Only when we have a secure home, are we able to truly thrive and benefit from other poverty-reducing measures like quality jobs and schools. Because housing policy debates can get complicated, this week’s New York Times Opinion feature is helpful in unpacking the tough issues. It features op-eds from six housing policy experts, each weighing in on a key issue—the fact that American housing policies disproportionately benefit homeowners over renters. As former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros writes, “About two-thirds of [federal] spending subsidizes home ownership, while just one-third supports affordable rental housing.” Sure, homeownership may be viewed as part of the “American Dream,” but it’s not the reality for many of us, especially low-income families. These conversations are essential in a time of skyrocketing rents and rising inequality, as critical programs like Section 8 are on the chopping block.

One Storm Shy of Despair: A Climate-Smart Plan for the Administration to Help Low-Income Communities by Cathleen Kelly and Tracey Ross (Center for American Progress)

Only 6,800 people arrived at shelters, even though 375,000 New Yorkers—including 45,000 public housing residents—lived in the mandatory evacuation zone hit hard by the hurricane. Workers eventually discovered the nightmare lurking behind low shelter turnout. Many low-income elderly and disabled residents of New York City’s public housing complexes were stranded in their dark and cold apartments without heat, backup generators, emergency boilers, or working elevators, the latter preventing many of these residents from descending multiple flights of stairs. Others endured these conditions because they had no other affordable place to stay or no reasonable means of leaving their neighborhoods because mass transit was shut down, among other reasons. 

For many, Superstorm Sandy was a tragic reminder that climate change is indeed happening, and that its effects will be costly. President Obama recently announced a final task force meeting to help state, local, and tribal leaders prepare their communities for climate change. Kelly and Ross present a critical perspective that leaders and policymakers must keep in mind when planning for disaster: our most vulnerable citizens often face the greatest environmental hazards and risks, yet they have not been a strong focus of federal recovery efforts. Kelly and Ross cover key climate change-related risks for low-income communities, from extreme heat, to food insecurity, to deep poverty. We need to do better in the face of our changing climate, and these policy recommendations are a wise step.



A Summer Vacation Free of Hunger

Do you remember what it felt like to be a kid on summer vacation? For a lot of young Americans, July and August means hanging out with friends, taking family trips, swimming wherever you can – maybe even going to camp, or curling up with a good book. But for millions of students across the country, those fun summer days are clouded by a painful reality that just won’t seem to go away: hunger.

During the school year, school districts around the country provide 22 million students with free or reduced-price school lunches. This essential nutrition service helps underprivileged kids to stay focused and competitive during the school day. But once school lets out for the year, only 1 in 7 of these children continues to receive free or reduced-price lunches in the summer. That leaves millions of kids in America hungry during lunchtime over their entire summer vacation. In New York, my home state, 1.7 million children receive free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year; in the summer, only 27 percent of them will get the nutrition they need.

We have to do better.

No child in America in 2014 should have to wake up every day wondering if he or she is going to have enough to eat before bedtime.

A problem of this proportion – millions of students going hungry during the summer because they don’t have access to a nutritious lunch – is unacceptable. This is a crisis we should all feel compelled to solve. I recently stood at the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Auburn, New York, and announced the introduction of the Summer Meals Act – a bipartisan bill that would enhance the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

Our Summer Meals Act has four goals. First, the bill would expand which communities are eligible to participate in the Summer Food Service Program. Right now, to be eligible for summer meals, a community must have 50 percent of its children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year in order to receive meal assistance in the summer. Our bill would drop this to a much fairer 40 percent, opening up the Summer Food Service Program to many more communities.

Second, the Summer Meals Act would reduce red tape for public-private partnerships. Right now, it’s too burdensome for non-school organizations to supply much-needed meals to hungry children. Our bill would make it much easier for organizations like the local food bank or youth center to give kids the nutrition that they need.

Third, the Summer Meals Act would increase access to summer meals in hard-to-reach rural areas. Hunger is by no means just an urban problem; for many kids in underserved areas who don’t have access to healthy food, a formidable barrier is just getting to the summer meal site. Our bill would give kids new transportation options to reach their meal sites.

Fourth, the Summer Meals Act would lift the burden on hardworking parents who have to stay at their workplaces during dinnertime. Our bill would give kids the option of receiving two daily meals and a snack from the Summer Food Service Program, or even three meals, if they need them.

No child in America in 2014 should have to wake up every day wondering if he or she is going to have enough to eat before bedtime. The Summer Meals Act is a critically important bill that would seriously reduce child hunger in America. Every kid in America deserves a summer vacation that’s free of hunger.




How to Not Listen to People in Poverty

On July 9, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held the fifth in a series of hearings entitled “A Progress Report on the War on Poverty.” The hearings have included seventeen witnesses: academics and policy wonks, social service providers and advocates, a politician and faith leaders. But until Tianna Gaines-Turner was asked by the Democratic minority to testify at this hearing, the Committee hadn’t heard from a single person actually living in poverty. Seventeen experts on poverty and, among them, only one poor person.

One might assume that the experience of a woman trying—along with her husband—to build a secure life for her family on poverty wages and federal assistance would mean a lot to representatives who are trying to assess the effectiveness of the government’s anti-poverty programs. And, at first listen, it might have seemed that the members were open to learning from Gaines-Turner. Ryan quoted from her previous written testimony in his opening remarks, affirming her assertion that to reduce poverty we must understand and address the needs of whole persons, rather than treating “people as numbers.”  He said that he hoped the committee would “listen and learn” from her testimony.

And Ryan wasn’t the only committee member who praised Gaines-Turner’s unique contribution to the series of hearings. There were at least six explicit mentions of how important it was to have her—a person living in poverty—there to testify. Both parties seemed grateful that they had an opportunity to hear a real account of struggles with financial insecurity. What unfolded, however, revealed that some legislators had a very different objective.

Heather Reynolds of Catholic Charities Fort Worth and Jennifer Tiller of American Works DC were the two other witnesses selected by the Republican majority for the panel. Their testimony, and a large number of the questions asked by conservative representatives, reflected a real bias in these anti-poverty discussions: the entrenched belief that poor people will have the better life that they want when they get a job.

Both Reynolds and Tiller insisted on the importance of getting their clients off of government assistance and into employment whenever possible—they testified that these steps were key to their organization’s definition of successfully getting clients out of poverty. Work-first policies and work requirements for welfare programs where mentioned repeatedly. The importance of “accountability” and “independence” was raised more than a few times (though always in reference to individuals receiving government assistance, until Gaines-Turner noted that there should be accountability for corporations like Target and Walmart, which bank huge profits while paying poverty wages or exploiting tax loopholes). “Receiving federal aid” was used interchangeably with “dependence on the government.”

If this had been a hearing on work-first programs or the efficacy of work requirements for recipients of federal aid, that might have been expected. But the title of this hearing was Working Families in Need, and Gaines-Turner and her husband both already have jobs.

Simply put, conservative members of the House Budget Committee didn’t show up on July 9 to listen to Gaines-Turner or to learn about the experiences of the working poor. They came to preach what they think they already know about people in poverty. They made Gaines-Turner repeatedly remind them that she and her husband have jobs, and when she tried to pivot to other issues that complicate her financial security—low wages, lack of affordable childcare, asset limits in assistance programs—she was asked whether or not she would prefer to be independent rather than rely on the government. It was embarrassing—not for Gaines-Turner, who handled the pressure and condescending questions with grace—but for the members who showed how unwilling they were to use this hearing to actually listen and learn rather than just hear themselves talk.

Anti-poverty programs will never be as successful as they could be until we listen to people in poverty when they share their experiences.

Perhaps no member exemplified more than South Carolina Representative Tom Rice the desire to repeatedly assert his own opinion rather than listen to Gaines-Turner talk about her experiences.  After getting all three witnesses to confirm that federal anti-poverty programs alone will never lift a person out of poverty, Rice focused on Gaines-Turner with a clear goal— get her to admit that a job is the only way out of poverty:

“If they just simply rely on federal programs and don’t try to make themselves better and go out and get a job will they ever get out of poverty?” asked Rice.

“Do you agree with me that that’s the path out of poverty? That they have got to go out and get a job?”

“If you rely on federal programs, you’re never going to come out of poverty. The only way out of poverty is to be self-reliant and find yourself a job.”

Gaines-Turner has already found herself a job. What she needs—and what she was asking the members of the committee to consider—is help with the myriad of factors that prevent her from working her way to financial security. If Rice, Ryan, and Indiana Representative Todd Rokita had listened to her, they would have heard Gaines-Turner talk about some of the issues that matter to a person in poverty, even when that person already has a job: healthcare, childcare, transportation, paid sick leave, just wages, safe and affordable housing, equal pay, asset limits. Perhaps they even would have heard her talk about the most shameful part of the reality of the working poor in our nation: that we let them go to work to provide for their families and continue to live in poverty, and make them feel isolated, dehumanized, and dismissed while they are trying to share in the American dream.

It’s truly shameful that Ryan, Rice, and other conservative members held a hearing to not listen to Tianna Gaines-Turner. She already knows what they still need to learn: anti-poverty programs in this country do work and they can work more effectively; but they will never be as successful as they could be until we listen to people in poverty when they share their experiences.

And that goes for all of us.





Diaper Shortages Leave Low-Income Kids Behind Before They Can Even Walk

Ask a county social worker, a food bank director, or any organization that assists families in low-income communities, and you will likely learn that they all experience a similar predicament each month. They do not have enough diapers. Diapers are the most requested basic need item, and organizations always run out.

Unmet diaper needs impact families’ ability to work and the public health of the communities where they live. Because diapers are required by most child care facilities, lack of diapers can reduce access to work and poor diapering can facilitate the spread of disease in public spaces.

According to The Diaper Bank, an adequate supply of diapers cost $100 or more per month. Making things worse, safety net programs such as TANF, SNAP and WIC do not allot money for diapers. Benefits themselves are already low. In California, the maximum TANF benefit—which provides cash assistance—is no more than 40% of the federal poverty level (around $670 per month for a family of three). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there isn’t a state in the country with a TANF benefit higher than ½ of the federal poverty line. To get by, families report diapering less. Some even report that their infants or toddlers have spent a day or longer in one diaper, which not only leads to potential health risks for the baby, but also puts them at risk for social, emotional and behavioral problems, according to a Pediatrics study.

Here in California, there are eleven diaper banks that are part of the National Diaper Bank network. Meeting the unmet diaper needs of very young children with donated diapers is their business, and they too report shortages on a regular basis and admit to covering only a small percentage of the state.

Until we confront the deep inequities that start at birth, our poorest children will be hampered by unequal footing before they even learn to walk.

This is what I learned when I started advocating in support of a bill introduced in California this year by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez and Senator Holly Mitchell to address the growing unmet need among poor families with infants and toddlers. The idea that we need legislation to address unmet diaper needs usually gets a chuckle out of most people at first. However, the grim reality is that a lack of an adequate supply of diapers can have severe mental, emotional, and developmental impacts on parents and children. In response, Assembly Bill 1516 would provide an $80 per month diaper supplement to eligible children receiving public assistance and would create a public-private partnership fund to help facilitate the distribution of financial donations and diaper contributions to the neediest of families.

My work on the bill is through the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) at the Women’s Foundation of California. The WPI trains women about how the legislative process works and how to advocate for legislative change. Since I am a single mom who knows how costly it can be to keep an infant adequately diapered and how difficult it can be to try to figure it out on your own, I am motivated to make the most of this opportunity. Still, I am most inspired by the personal stories and the sense of how real policy decisions can impact real people’s lives.

A mother I know who has three little girls is one of these real people whose story has inspired me. She was working several jobs, but was still living under the poverty line and receiving just over $100 a month in TANF assistance, when extra hours at work and $20 more in her paycheck made her ineligible for the TANF program.

She lacked job security at her hourly jobs, and the loss of the income from TANF left her family on unstable footing. As a result, she struggled to meet her children’s basic needs. She told me about how she forced her children to potty train way before they were ready to save money and about her feelings of being overwhelmed with stress during this period in her family’s life.

Throughout the legislative session, the team of advocates working on this bill has heard other powerful testimonies about the consequences for children when parents are unable to make it through the end of each month without reusing lightly soiled diapers or prolonging periods between diaper changes.

I don’t know if Assembly Bill 1516 will pass and, if it gets passed, if it would get signed. But I hope that its introduction has helped to educate lawmakers in our state’s Capitol about the great risks associated with deep poverty and unmet diaper needs and to inspire them to do something about it.  I also know that bills like this one, which tackle the real needs of real people and real policy solutions, are desperately needed from Sacramento to Albany and in every state capitol in between.  Until we confront the human and fiscal costs associated with allowing children to live in deep poverty and the deep inequities that start at birth, our poorest children will be hampered by unequal footing before they even learn to walk.