Housing Aid Applicants Criticize D.C. Freeze

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dana Grinage -- voice cracking, tears flowing, heart racing -- explained to D.C. Council members what it was like to come tantalizingly close to her dream of owning a home, only to have it taken away by their decision to freeze millions of dollars from a popular housing program that helps residents with down payments and closing costs.

"I did everything that was asked of me," she said during a committee hearing yesterday, reading a statement as her hands trembled. Grinage, 26, had saved her meager wages, improved her troubled credit rating and lowered her expenses to qualify for a loan through the city's Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP).

But Grinage's application was stalled, with about 250 others, after the D.C. Council voted last month to suspend $11 million of HPAP's $34 million budget. At the time, council members did not know that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration planned to propose redirecting an additional $11 million in HPAP funds to other projects.

The council's vote all but suspended HPAP. Last month, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development told the Greater Washington Urban League to stop processing program applications. Only applicants with home purchase contracts approved before Nov. 14 were allowed to move forward.

As Grinage and other applicants voiced their disappointment at the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing, the panel's chairman, Marion Barry, slumped in his black leather chair. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), a committee member, knotted his brow in a look of frustration.

"No matter how hard I try, there's no one behind me," Grinage said, her voice rising. She said that when she came home to her Northwest apartment building recently, she learned that a man had been shot to death on the first floor. Grinage, who works as an executive assistant and is a student at Southeastern University, said she badly wants to move. "I'm a single mother," she said. "What I'm doing now I'm doing for my daughter. I have to walk in my building hoping I won't get caught up in anything."

HPAP offers loans of as much as $77,000 an applicant.

A spokesman for the city budget office said about $11 million is needed to process applications and award loans. Barry, who represents Ward 8, where many low-income residents have used HPAP to buy homes in developments that are becoming increasingly expensive, opposed the council's decision.

Barry said the $11 million cut Fenty (D) plans to propose must be approved by the council, and he vowed to oppose it. "I'm determined to make homeownership a priority in this city," he said.

Graham vowed to work with Grinage to get her application processed and sent a member of his staff to interview her. "These intolerable cuts adversely impact the people who are most vulnerable," he said.

Other members of the committee are girded against the cuts the mayor plans to propose. Barry went farther in criticizing D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's decision to move forward with freezing $11 million and putting it in the city's cash reserve in anticipation of a revenue shortfall this year.

Gray said yesterday that he and his colleagues were blind-sided by the mayor's plan to propose a cut. He said he ordered an audit of the program after the council's freeze because "it gives us an opportunity to determine how many people are in the pipeline" and a more pertinent question: Should the administration move forward in trying to remove another $11 million?

Fenty, Gray, council members and housing officials have been deluged with calls and letters from advocates, real estate agents, developers and applicants. The 30-year-old program has helped about 8,000 residents buy homes. In a city in which the median monthly mortgage payment is more than $2,000, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the program is essential, council members said.

Last year, the Urban League approved 513 loan applicants. This year, 508 were approved.

Maudine Cooper, president and chief executive of the league, called HPAP one of the city's most popular programs. At events, she said, strangers would see her name tag and gush about how HPAP helped them with their first home.

The league was usually granted an annual contract to process the applications, Cooper said. But at the start of this fiscal year, the city awarded only a three-month contract to it.

"I didn't feel good about that, certainly," Cooper said. "But I felt good that we got those three months."

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