By Lanie Rivera and Shonette Reed
A pledge by Mayor Vincent C. Gray to spend $100 million for the building and preservation of 10,000 units of affordable housing drew enthusiastic applause at the annual State of the District Address at the Historic Synagogue on Feb. 5.
“Last September, I announced $35 million in financing to create and preserve additional affordable housing,” said Gray, “But we have to do more.”
The mayor acknowledged the rapid gentrification that has led to a dwindling of affordable apartments and homes in the city.
“We once worried about the District becoming a city of the haves and have nots,” he said “But now we are increasingly in danger of becoming a city only of haves.”
Although the affordable housing plan was not a major goal in Gray’s 2010 campaign, the announcement of the major housing initiative for the coming year signified a shift. Affordable housing advocates were thrilled. It seemed the mayor had gotten their message.
Campaign Coordinators from the Coalition for Non-Profit Housing and Economic Development photographed themselves beaming at the conclusion of the event.
“We applaud this action!” the group posted on its website. “One hundred million dollars is a great start toward making sure there are 10,000 additional affordable homes for District residents.”
Jenny Reed, of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute also praised the initiative but went on to offer some cautionary words.
“DCFPI applauds Mayor Gray for pledging a big investment in affordable housing. At the same time, getting to 10,000 units may require additional support. In particular, the mayor indicated that the funding would be provided on a one-time basis, rather than serving as an ongoing commitment every year,” Reed blogged.
“A one-time commitment also would make it unlikely that this new housing investment could serve DC’s most vulnerable residents — a population Mayor Gray pointed out in his speech.”
A mayoral task force on housing is expected to release a report later this month. Gray said the city’s economic growth was responsible for a “prosperity dividend” that made such projects possible.
But not everyone was pleased, either by the housing pledge, or the other spending initiatives promised by Gray.
A group of parents and children showed up outside the synagogue to protest the planned closing of 20 public schools, a measure D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson says will save money and improve performance systemwide.
Meanwhile, some homeless advocates remained troubled by the late January announcement by the mayor and outgoing District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi of a budget surplus of $417 million in the last fiscal year. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, in a blog on its website noted that while homeless families were denied shelters last year on fiscal grounds “the DC government was amassing hundreds of millions of dollars in unspent funds.”
Gray steered clear of criticism about his refusal to spend any of the surplus funds and he made no mention of the ongoing investigation into questions about donations to his 2010 campaign.
Instead he focused on his future plans for District improvement, including pay raises for city employees, technological improvements, strengthening numbers in the police force, and a taxi “smart meter” regulation for credit cards.
He stated his intent to create a One City Fund to finance eligible non-profit organizations, noting the District’s “vibrant non-profit community makes a difference in the lives of millions a day.” The fund will provide one-year grants amounting to $100,000 to eligible non-profit organizations, with a budget totaling $15 million.
Gray also announced a technological development plan he dubbed the 1776 project “because it is revolutionary in nature — a collaborative space that will help us nurture and incubate ideas that become small District companies that then grow up to be big District companies.”
He also provided an update on a decades-old effort to redevelop the Skyland Shopping Center in Ward 7, announcing the project is “finally becoming a reality.” A Walmart store and 500 units of housing are slated for the site.
Plans are also underway for redevelopment at Walter Reed Hospital’s former site in Ward 4 and construction teams have broken ground at the CityMarket on O Street, a project scheduled to include 80 affordable senior rental units, mixed income housing, a supermarket and other stores, Gray said.
Gray also made mention of the La Casa Project,a permanent supportive housing program taking shape in the Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhood.