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Jim Dickerson’s vision for Washington includes affordable housing for everyone

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What kind of place is the District on the verge of becoming? A vibrant, economically diverse city or a gilded ghetto for the well-to-do — moated off from the poor by rivers and under surveillance by police security cameras on every street?

Jim Dickerson has a vision worthy of a nation’s capital.

He sees an inclusive city, more neighborly than stuck up; earthy, not snooty. Low- and moderate-income residents would be welcomed. Through inspired political leadership, they’d have opportunities for homeownership and a chance to become part of the city’s rebirth.

This is not pie in the sky.

In 1982, Dickerson founded Manna, a nonprofit affordable housing and community development organization. Over 30 years, the group has helped more than 1,000 lower-income D.C. residents become homeowners. Neighborhoods throughout the city have been transformed, one house and one family at a time.

“We started out doing transitional housing for people in recovery from substance abuse,” Dickerson said recently. “When the family graduated, they’d say, ‘We don’t want to go back to rental. We want to own a home.’ We saw how homeownership proved fundamental to a family’s continued progress, how it helped stabilize neighborhoods and reduce crime.”

Manna recently launched its most ambitious effort so far: A campaign to increase the volume of affordable housing east of the Anacostia River before gentrification drives up the cost.

The area — wards 7 and 8 — are slated for roughly $9 billion in commercial and residential investment over the next 10 years. There won’t be much else to renovate in the city after that, making the Manna campaign the last, best chance for low- and moderate-income residents to buy homes in the District.

“These two wards have the lowest percentage of homeownership in the city,” Dickerson said. “If we can increase it by 30 percent, we can give a lot of families a toehold on the economic ladder. Instead of spending money trying to make poor people comfortable in poverty, we could be using homeownership to help liberate them.”

Because of an intensive homeownership training program, the foreclosure rate for Manna homes is lower than 2 percent, below the national average. During the past eight years, there were no foreclosures. The average accumulation of equity is about $90,000, and each homeowner pays about $2,000 a year in property taxes, according to Manna.

“We have a lot of outstanding people in this city, with a lot to contribute and who just need an opportunity,” Dickerson said. “As they start realizing their potential, other people see that and say, ‘If that person can make it, so can I.’ ”

From 2000 to 2007, the city lost about a third of its low-cost rental units, much of it replaced by housing for upper-income residents. Income inequity in the District is among the highest in the country. And judging from proposed cuts in city services for the poor, the wealth gap appears to be accompanied by a sympathy gap that’s just as wide.

“People talk about making Washington into a world-class city. But sometimes I think that’s just a code word for upper-class only,” said Dickerson, who is also founder and pastor of New Community Church in Shaw.

Dickerson said he hopes that more residents will get involved in the struggle for economic justice. But if the turnout for the recent D.C. primary election is any guide, many no longer believe that change is possible. Out of more than 109,000 registered voters in wards 7 and 8, for instance, only about 16,500 actually went to the polls.

Some elected officials can’t seem to keep their eyes on the prize, either.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) has become entangled in a controversy over his characterization of Asian-owned corner stores. Meanwhile, developers are moving ahead with plans to bring upscale housing and high-end markets to the ward.

Not only will those corner stores all but disappear, but so will Barry’s low-income supporters.

“Our elected leaders say they want to make the District a city where everybody benefits,” Dickerson said. “They could start by backing up that vision with action and making affordable housing a priority.”

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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