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Bowser Talks Housing at League of Cities Gathering

Affordable housing has emerged as one of the key issues facing cities, towns and villages across the country and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has become a national leader on the innovative ways to deal with it.

The National League of Cities (NLC), an organization of local elected officials of municipalities of all sizes in the U.S., recently convened its annual Congressional City Conference that took place at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in the District of Columbia. On March 11, Bowser presided over the NLC’s Housing Task Force that included the mayors of Boston and Gary., Ind., and city council members of cities such as Baltimore and Seattle.

“Washington, D.C., is a growing city of 700,000 people and has one of the strongest economies in the Washington region,” the mayor said. “With that growth, other problems have developed such as the income gap between residents and the achievement gap, also.”

The local political leaders are in the District to go to Capitol Hill and lobby lawmakers on issues affecting their jurisdictions. The annual conference emphasizes a different issue each year, with this year being the nation’s infrastructure.

With the country’s crumbling infrastructure appeared to be the overt theme of the conference, the sub-category of housing came up quite frequently among the participants in public and private conversations. The lack of affordable housing, numerous vacant lots, abandoned properties, growing needs for rental and mortgage assistance, gentrification and homelessness are problems that municipalities of every size and in every state, commonwealth and U.S. possession face.

“Many of our cities are facing the same problems in regards to housing,” Bowser said. “We have a national housing crisis. This is not a Democratic or Republican problem.”

District residents pay on average $2,139 for an apartment, according to the web site RENTCafe, which reports that only three percent of District rentals are in the range of $700-$1,000 a month while 50 percent of rentals are more than $2,000 a month.

RENTCafe reports the District’s most affordable neighborhoods are Benning and Benning Ridge in Ward 7 where renters pay an average of $1,151 a month while the most expensive areas are Shaw in Ward 6 ($2,638) and Ward 2’s West End (2,735) and Federal Triangle ($2,956).

Bowser has a unique instrument at her disposal to deal with the affordable housing crisis: the $100 million Housing Production Trust Fund. The Fund gives out gap funding for building low and moderate priced housing.

Even so, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute called for the mayor and the D.C. Council to increase the Fund to $200 million a year on March 11.

Bowser, in response to a question, said that the Fund would be a good model for Maryland and Virginia and noted that the District’s housing problems tend to be regional and not just confined to the city.

The task force consists of presentations by consultants and NLC staff members on the methods to address affordable housing. Members of the task force talked about ways they address affordable housing.

“In Baltimore, the voters approved an equity fund,” Baltimore City Council member Brandon Scott said. “This fund would help residents to become homeowners and would build more affordable housing.”

Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda talked about an effort where tenants will be able to purchase buildings if they are on the market and encouraged more co-ops. Gary, Indiana, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she deals with vacant and abandoned properties that consist of 20 percent of the city’s housing stock.

“We have worked with our federal partners to demolish 1,200 vacant properties in the past seven years and are working to put those on the market,” said Freeman-Wilson, who served as the president of the NLC.

The mayor said “redlining” — the practice of governments and financial institutions of not loaning money to low-income and minority neighbors because of the perception of being a poor credit risk — has had a devastating impact on Black neighborhoods and residents.

“It is a scurrilous practice that needs to stop,” she said.

The task force will issue a report on its recommendations for housing in June.

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