First Person

Anti-Poverty Leaders Respond to Rep. Paul Ryan believes that if we are to dramatically reduce poverty in the United States we will need a strong and diverse movement that is led by people who know poverty firsthand.

Yesterday, Representative Paul Ryan’s unveiling of his new proposal to address poverty offered the opportunity to gather responses from some of the people who might lead such a movement.

Here is what they had to say:
Tianna Gaines-Turner: About Work and People Receiving Public Assistance
Tom Colicchio: ‘Opportunity Grants’ Will Make Hunger Worse
Laffon Brelland, Jr.: ‘My Family Does Not Struggle Because We Lack Work Ethic’
Melissa Boteach: Ryan’s Case Against Himself
Peter Edelman: Compassionate Conservatism Rides Again
Anne Ford: Put Energy into Raising Wages
Deepak Bhargava: Ryan’s Poverty Plan Equals More Attacks on the Poor
Dr. Mariana Chilton: Not a Serious Dialogue

Tianna Gaines-Turner: About Work and People Receiving Public Assistance

Earlier this month, I had the honor of testifying at one of the War on Poverty hearings. I testified as a member of Witnesses to Hunger, and as a representative for millions of Americans like me who are struggling with poverty. I had hoped that by sharing my story, and my ideas for change, Congressman Paul Ryan would have released a poverty plan that listened a little more closely to my recommendations.

I do appreciate some of what he said in yesterday’s event at the American Enterprise Institute. I’m glad he recognizes that the government has an obligation to expand opportunities in America. Many of his ideas are good. Increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit would help a lot of struggling Americans—although paying for it by eliminating the Social Services Block Grant wouldn’t—and results-driven research is an important part of understanding what works and what doesn’t.

I did not appreciate Mr. Ryan’s comments about work and people on public assistance. He started out by saying that today’s Americans are working harder than ever before, but aren’t getting ahead. This I agree with. My husband and I both work part-time jobs, but we still struggle to make ends meet. Millions of Americans face similar situations as my husband and me.

But Mr. Ryan went on to explain that he wants to incorporate work into the safety net, like they did with welfare reform in 1996. I do not think this is a good idea. I stressed this during my testimony in front of the House Budget Committee. I explained that families are working. We don’t need to be placed in more work programs, we need our jobs to pay living wages, and to offer family-oriented policies like paid sick and paid family leave. This way, we can earn more, save money, and create our own safety net so that we never have to turn to the government for help again.

I am happy that Congressman Ryan ended his speech by encouraging people to send him constructive criticism, and more recommendations for him to consider when developing this poverty plan. He can be sure that I will be writing to him with more of my ideas, and more recommendations from my Witnesses to Hunger brothers and sisters.

Tianna Gaines-Turner is a member of Witnesses to Hunger, a program hosted by the Center for Hunger Free Communities at Drexel University featuring the voices and photography of parents and caregivers who have experienced hunger and poverty firsthand. She is a married mother of three children, and works with children at a local recreation facility in Northeast Philadelphia. 

Tom Colicchio: ‘Opportunity Grants’ Will Make Hunger Worse

When Congressman Paul Ryan talks about consolidating means-tested programs like food stamps, child care, welfare and housing into a single grant, he’s talking about a block grant.  And that’s something we already know all too much about.

The TANF block grant created in 1996 made cash assistance much harder to obtain.  In 1996, about 68 percent of families with children living in poverty were able to get TANF cash assistance.  Now about 25 percent can get it.  Plus, the block grant is still funded at 1996 levels so cash benefits have decreased dramatically in terms of their real purchasing power.

We can’t allow the same thing to happen with food assistance.

We already have a hunger crisis in this country.  Nearly 50 million people don’t necessarily know where there next meal is coming from.  It’s unacceptable in the wealthiest nation in the world, and it’s a crisis virtually unknown in other wealthy nations.

But hunger is also a problem we can solve—if we look honestly and critically at the policies that contribute to either making hunger worse, or to reducing it.

Lumping nutrition assistance in with other much needed assistance—like housing and childcare—would make hunger worse.  For one thing, it makes it much more difficult for our growing Food Movement to hold legislators accountable for their votes on food issues.  If they vote to cut the block grant is the money cut from food or housing? And if we leave it to the whims of states to decide how much nutrition assistance people can receive, or whether they can receive it at all—as with TANF—then how will we ever resolve as a nation to end hunger?

As I’ve written previously, it’s time we have a Food Movement that votes on a good fair food system for all.  That same movement needs to be vigilant and speak out against bad ideas that will make our food system worse.

That means speaking out in no uncertain terms against Congressman Ryan’s proposal.

Tom Colicchio is a Chef and food-activist.  You can follow him on Twitter @tomcolicchio.

Laffon Brelland, Jr.: ‘My Family Does Not Struggle Because We Lack Work Ethic’

Living in a single-parent household is tough. I grew up with my mother and two sisters, and although my mother always worked, we struggled to make ends meet. When the economy tanked, my mother lost her job. My older sister was in college, and even with the help from other outside family members and government assistance, we could not cover the cost of her education and all of our family’s other expenses.

I remember the day my mother looked me in the eye and said, “I’m going to be honest with you, son. With the way things are right now, I won’t be able to help you pay for college. What happens to you now is all on you.”

I took her advice and got to work. In addition to being a full-time high school honor student, I worked two low-wage jobs to help my family pay the bills. The years went on and things got harder at home. My family was always working. With my help, we were able to put my sister through college. I will be a sophomore at the University of South Carolina in the fall. But even with every able body in the house working, it is still a challenge every month to cover the bills.

My family does not struggle because we lack work ethic... My family struggles because of poverty wages

My family does not struggle because we lack work ethic, which Paul Ryan’s new plan implies is the underlying cause of poverty in America. My family struggles because of poverty wages, which Ryan’s plan does nothing to rectify. Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage was raised. My family and I work tirelessly, but until employers are required to pay us enough to thrive, my families and thousands like ours will continue to scrape by.

Laffon Brelland, Jr. is a rising sophomore at the University of South Carolina, double-majoring in English and Spanish. He is a Junior Writing Fellow at the Center for Community Change.

Melissa Boteach: Ryan’s Case Against Himself

Yesterday, Rep. Ryan proposed a plan that would eliminate a program that consolidates multiple antipoverty programs into a single grant to states in the name of providing greater flexibility. Yep, you read that right.

While the press coverage has focused on Rep. Ryan’s “new” idea of consolidating multiple programs into a single “Opportunity Grant,” most of the coverage missed the fact that he proposed to pay for part of his plan by eliminating the Social Service Block Grant (SSBG).

The SSBG is a capped, flexible stream of funding to states that funds services such as adoption, childcare, counseling, child abuse prevention, community-based care for seniors and people with disabilities, and employment services. Last year it helped approximately 23 million people, about half of them children. The program dates back to 1981, when a series of social services were consolidated into this single grant, and since then, many nonprofits have been funded by it to provide services like case management. Sounds a lot like Rep. Ryan’s “Opportunity Grant”, right?

Unfortunately, while SSBG provides states with enormous flexibility, over time it lost a lot of political capital. Politicians began to complain that it was duplicative of other programs. Policymakers could cut it time and again without having to cite any specific consequences since the money was “flexible.”  Over time, it has lost 77 percent of its value due to inflation, cuts, and funding freezes, and in recent years, there have been attempts to eliminate it altogether.  This is surely predictive of Rep. Ryan’s new proposal.

Which brings me back to the “Opportunity Grants.”  Right now, Rep. Ryan is claiming that his plan is completely deficit neutral, and states would not lose any money.

Yet, in a cautionary tale, calls for elimination of SSBG have been supported by none other than Rep. Ryan, who out of the other side of his mouth is proposing an eerily similar idea: to consolidate, in the name of flexibility, major funding streams that currently help low-income families. In fact, Rep. Ryan proposes eliminating the Social Service Block Grant altogether to pay for his proposed EITC expansion for childless workers. In an ironic twist that he seems to miss, he claims that SSBG is “ineffective.”

Thank you, Paul Ryan, for illustrating more clearly than anyone else possibly could why your proposal is so dangerous.

Melissa Boteach is the Vice President of the Poverty to Prosperity Program and Half in Ten Education Fund at the Center for American Progress.  You can follow her on Twitter @mboteach.

Peter Edelman: Compassionate Conservatism Rides Again

Paul Ryan has a new suit of clothes, but inside he’s still just Paul Ryan.  In fact the suit of clothes is made of porcupine quills—take a close look and it’ll poke you in the eye.  He’s now seeming sweet and sympathetic in wanting to do something about poverty, but what he’s proposing is mainly a shell game—now you see it, now you don’t.

Never mind that his budgets for the past four years—which would have cut $5 trillion dollars over 10 years, with 69 percent of the cuts coming in programs for low- and moderate-income people—are still on the table.  The latest Paul Ryan says he will turn well over $100 billion in federal programs into block grants once his state demonstrations prove successful.  And he says he won’t cut any of the programs in his block grant.  Will the real Paul Ryan please stand up?

We tried compassionate conservatism. It wasn't there then—and there still isn’t.

Of course, the new and improved version of his proposals is still pretty lousy.  Block grant food stamps?  Terrible idea.  I guess he thinks it’s fine for Mississippi to say that the definition of hunger there isn’t the same as it is in Minnesota.  Make housing compete with child care by putting them both in the same block grant?  Why?  What we need is more investment in both.

Block grants are not the friend of low-income people.  TANF, among other issues, is receiving the same $16.6 billion appropriation now as it had in 1996.  The Social Services Block Grant received $2.5 billion when it was enacted in the early 70s and is now getting $1.7 billion.   I guess there’s no reference to inflation in Paul Ryan’s instruction manual.

It’s time to get real.  There are two huge problems (and lots of smaller ones) that are making it difficult to reduce poverty right now.  One is the flood of low-work in our country—which results in 106 million people with incomes below twice the poverty line, below $39,000 for a family of three.  What does Paul Ryan propose to do about that?  Nothing. The other is the huge hole in our national safety net for the poorest among us—6 million people whose total income is from food stamps, which by itself is less than about $7,000 annually for a family of three.  Paul Ryan has a proposal there—put TANF, which is already almost nonexistent in most of the country, into a block grant along with food stamps, housing, child care, and God knows what else.  How does he think that will go?

We tried compassionate conservatism.  There was no there there then—and there still isn’t.

Peter Edelman is a Professor of Law at the Georgetown Law Center, and the Faculty Director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Anne Ford: Put Energy into Raising Wages

I’ve been a nurse for more than 30 years. I worked at DC General for 17 years and as a home health nurse for 10 years before a back surgery left me unable to care for adults. So, I switched to working with children. I’ve worked in children’s hospitals and as a school nurse and I loved it. But when I lost my job of five years, I also lost a $2,000 per month paycheck – resources I needed to care for myself and pay for my mortgage, car loan, insurance, and other bills.

When I was finally able to enroll in food stamps and unemployment insurance, I received $700 per month and had to rely on my daughter’s help to make ends meet. Thankfully, I also received Medicaid, which covered my doctor’s appointments, medications, and follow-up care from my surgery. Without that care I wouldn’t have been able to leave my house. I really relied on these three benefits to survive until things could get better, same as a lot of people I met in lines, filling out forms alongside me.

With his new proposal, I can see that Paul Ryan doesn’t care about us. If he did, why would he want to make getting help harder? If he had asked any person in my situation what kind of help they needed, he never would have come up with this plan. He’s never, not for one day, walked in our shoes.

Paul Ryan and I are both Christians, and I encourage him to pray on his new plan. What he’s doing is not godly. Through my church, I volunteer at So Others Might Eat (SOME), an organization that helps people who can’t make ends meet access food, clothing, and healthcare. If Rep. Ryan’s plan goes through, the number of people needing to reach out to organizations like this will only increase, and these organizations can’t meet that kind of increased demand.

If Paul Ryan really wanted to help he should have proposed creating something, not messing up programs like food stamps that are already working well.  He should have proposed to create jobs, or increase the supply of affordable housing. He should have put his energy into raising the wages at all these jobs that don’t pay enough to survive. The truth is if you don’t have a job that pays more than the cost of living, you can’t afford the necessities to live. And that’s how we ended up with all these people with nowhere to live who are fighting every minute to put food in their stomachs.

I depend on food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment insurance, but it still isn’t enough to make ends meet. But, for myself, I’m hopeful. Just this Wednesday, I accepted a full-time job as a school nurse without even asking the salary. For all those people out there who are still looking for jobs, what Paul Ryan wants to do makes me scared.

Anne Ford is a school nurse in Washington, DC.

Deepak Bhargava: Ryan’s Poverty Plan Equals More Attacks on the Poor

For those of us who wish our nation’s leaders would pay more attention to the 106 million people living on the brink in this country, Paul Ryan’s new plan to address poverty is so bad it might make us think, “Careful what you wish for.”

Rep. Ryan’s plan adopts the conventional Republican analysis that individual failure and insufficient effort is the main driver of poverty, and then revives as the solution the bankrupt block grant proposals that have failed in the past.

Let’s be clear—the premise of Ryan’s argument is wrong.  The evidence of our own history and from around the world shows that we can—through concerted government action—make a big difference in reducing poverty.  The positive effect of better labor market standards and government supports is undeniable, in the U.S. and around the world.

So what would a serious effort to reduce poverty look like? We could reduce poverty in the U.S. by 80 percent by taking three simple steps:

First, we need to raise wages so that workers earn a living wage. The minimum wage must be increased to catch up with productivity growth, and workers must have the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages.

Second, we need to eliminate racial and gender inequality in the labor market. Poverty isn’t just an economic issue; it’s a women’s rights and racial justice issue. A paycheck should be equal to the amount of work you produce, not be based on the color of your skin or your gender.

Finally, we need full employment. We need to invest in key sectors of the economy—from the green economy to infrastructure—so that we can create millions of jobs.

This strategy would reduce poverty in America by 80 percent because it would improve access to what people living in poverty really need: quality jobs that pay a decent wage. Paul Ryan’s plan, in contrast, would give people living in poverty more of what they absolutely don’t need: blame that reinforces the conditions that keep people poor.  It would also lead to more hardship by further weakening our already frayed safety net.

Deepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change which you can follow on Twitter @communitychange.

Dr. Mariana Chilton: Not a Serious Dialogue

It may be surprising to hear this, but Representative Paul Ryan is actually speaking my language.

He says he is interested in developing opportunity and choice for people, and that people need careers, not just “jobs.”  He also said, loud and clear, we need to get rid of the federal red tape.   In my state, the need to collect documentation of work participation hours creates such a gnarly cluster of inefficient busy-work and red tape that it sucks the creativity and life out of entire communities.

When Rep. Ryan said “too many families in America are working harder and harder yet falling further behind,” I perked up, thinking—Right! Their wages have deteriorated. We should raise wages to a living wage.  But discussion of wages was a glaring omission in his speech.

Another worrying thing—his talk of turning programs over to the states. There’s no good precedent for that.  Consider Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which Rep. Ryan consistently holds up as a model for reform: that’s the birthplace of federal and state red tape.  Additionally, what we see on the ground with TANF is often punitive, and downright mean. Here’s an example in Pennsylvania: at a County Assistance Office, people waiting to speak to “career development workers” are actually forced to sit facing the wall with their backs to the case managers. This is dehumanizing and humiliating.

Unfortunately, that dehumanizing treatment of America’s families is what I see when I hear that Rep. Ryan is listening to his “mentors”—people who say such thoughtless, non-Christian things as “there is a deserving and undeserving poor.” Last I checked, there is no spiritual tradition, nor any political tradition, that says some people deserve to be hungry (read: poor).  Since Paul Ryan comes from a state that has the highest rates of racial disparities in wealth and in health, everything he says should be held up to our public accountability meter that measures for transparency, fairness and basic humanity.

As I was listening to Rep. Ryan, I almost started thinking I could actually work with him, and that I could join the dialogue. After all, he’s the only leader recently who has shown a public attempt to make fixing poverty a focus of their leadership. But when I saw all the men (read: no women) joining him on the discussion panel at the American Enterprise Institute after his speech, I laughed out loud.  Until Rep. Ryan starts including women—especially women of color, African American, Latina, American Indian, Asian and more—none of us can take this “dialogue” seriously.




Reverse Robin Hood: Conservatives Take Child Tax Credit from Families on the Brink, Give to the Rich

This week, the House is set to vote on a bill that would systematically gut the Child Tax Credit (CTC) as we currently know it. We’ve seen conservatives offer this bill many times before.  In a reverse Robin Hood maneuver, they would take away CTC benefits from low-income families in order to expand them for wealthy families in the future—families with incomes as high as $205,000.

In 1998, Congress passed the CTC with the aim of bringing children in low-income families out of poverty. Depending on a family’s income, the CTC provides a tax credit of up to $1,000 per child; the credit increases as a family’s income rises, with higher-income families receiving a larger credit.  The CTC has successfully achieved its goal: in 2012, the program lifted more than 3 million Americans out of poverty.

Currently, immigrant parents of US citizen children are able to receive a Child Tax Credit by filing with an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The IRS created the ITIN in 1996 so that immigrants who are not eligible for Social Security numbers would be able to file taxes. In practice, many ITIN filers are undocumented immigrants who are living and working in the United States.

House conservatives are attempting to punish US citizen children whose parents don’t have a Social Security card.

These workers contribute much needed revenue.  In 2010, undocumented workers contributed $13 billion in payroll taxes.  In recent years, more than 3 million immigrants have filed taxes using an ITIN, contributing nearly $1 billion in income taxes. This system has clearly allowed immigrants without Social Security numbers to come forward and strengthen the coffers of the US while receiving needed assistance for their children.

So how would things change if conservatives had things go their way with this bill?  The short answer: 4 million US citizen children would be at risk of falling into poverty.

By requiring that all taxpayers use a Social Security number when claiming the Child Tax Credit, this bill would strip immigrant parents of US citizen children of their right to receive the credit. Currently, over 2 million people use an ITIN to file for the CTC, therefore 4 million US born children would be deprived of this crucial financial assistance.

This would be a devastating blow to these families.  In recent years, the average family income of ITIN filers claiming the CTC was just over $21,200, and their average refund through the CTC was $1,800.  As the annual cost of raising a child in the US steadily increases, and real wages grow sluggishly, low-income families need the CTC more than ever.  Eliminating the ability for immigrants to claim it on behalf of their children would simply push millions of Americans into poverty and create greater costs to our country now and in the future.

Adding insult to injury, the conservative bill comes after a year of inaction in the House on immigration reform.  By failing to pass immigration reform, House conservatives denied immigrants the ability to get right with the law and obtain a Social Security card. Now they are attempting to punish US citizen children whose parents don’t have a Social Security card.

Eliminating the CTC for those who file and pay taxes under the ITIN would take food off the table and clothes off the backs of US citizen children. Unfortunately, and to the shock of no one, yet another bill is targeting some of the most vulnerable Americans in an attempt to help the already fortunate few.





Raising the Minimum Wage: Get Local

Last month, The White House and the Department of Labor announced a new federal contracting rule that would help tackle income inequality by raising the minimum wage for contract employees. According to the Center for American Progress, 80 percent of the 5.4 million people working for federal service contractors in 2008 were earning less than a living wage for their city or region.

Raising the wage of federal employees and contract workers is a great step towards setting a wage floor for the entire nation. Governments are the largest employer in America, so when the feds pay their workers better, other sectors have to do the same in order to compete.

But there is much more that can be done to achieve a living wage, particularly at the local level.

According to the US Census Bureau, there are 19,492 municipal governments, 3,033 county governments, and 14,561 school districts in the United States.  Each one of them provides services to their constituents through the labor of millions of workers.  The public agencies that employ these workers represent an enormous amount of purchasing power.  Cities, counties and school district can follow the lead of President Obama and reform their procurement processes in order to raise wages for their workers.

Employees in positions that are traditionally public service jobs are particularly vulnerable to wage reductions when their positions are outsourced. For example, in New Jersey, K-12 school food service workers had their wages cut an average of $4 to 6 per hour—and many of their health insurance benefits wiped out—when their jobs were outsourced to companies like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass. At the time of the study, food service companies had among the highest levels of employees and their children enrolled in the New Jersey FamilyCare program, driving up poverty and likely costing taxpayers far more than any savings realized through privatization.

Similarly, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) outsources 47% of its fixed-route bus service to Veolia and First Transit. The general manager of the RTD admits that the cost savings from the outsourced service are largely due to cuts in employee compensation. The starting pay for bus drivers employed by RTD is $15.49 per hour, compared to $12.25 for drivers with private contractors.

And In December 2009, Milwaukee County outsourced nearly 90 janitors responsible for cleaning public buildings. Working for the county, these employees earned between $13.95 and $15.75 per hour plus benefits. When the service was outsourced, the contractor paid $8.00 per hour with no benefits. With families to support, many of the workers—who had more than 10 years of experience with Milwaukee County—couldn’t afford to take the degraded jobs.

Cities can enact legislation that requires contractors to pay their employees a living wage and provide reasonable benefits. Many cities have already passed “living wage ordinances” and more should follow their lead. And while these laws are a good first step, it should also be noted that the mandated wage levels too often fall short of what would truly be a family-sustaining wage.

Some public agencies are beginning to set new standards. For example, this month the Los Angeles Unified School District raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour for its service workers who keep the schools clean, safe and operating. Service Employees International Union Local 99 advocated for the new contract—which received unanimous support from the school board and was strongly supported by the district’s Superintendent. The contract is an example of how management, public service employees and elected leaders can come together to find a solution that pays a living wage and benefits everyone.

Raising the wage floor for everyone who works for the federal, state, or local government—or for an employer that benefits from government contracts—would increase the minimum wage for the majority of American workers. Other employers would also have to raise wages to compete for talent in the labor market.

In an era of rising income and wealth inequality, these are concrete steps our elected leaders can take to make communities more equitable and our families more financially secure.




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.