Dozens of activists and several D.C. Council members demonstrated at the office of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) yesterday, demanding that he give millions of additional dollars to a housing program whose funding was far lower than promised last year.
The city, facing severe budget woes, allocated $5 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund for fiscal 2003, after initially approving about $22 million. Activists said the mayor and council must guarantee the full amount of funding for the coming fiscal year. If not, they contend, low-income residents eventually will be forced to leave the city.
"It's a tough situation in terms of the economy and the budget and revenues, but we are determined to do it -- we are going to have full funding for this," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who joined Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and about 80 activists at the John A. Wilson Building.
"People who survived the worst [years of] crime in this city are being told, 'Here's the door. We don't know what you're going to find, but you're going to be put out,' " Graham added, referring to low-income residents. "Our message is, 'We don't want these people.' But that's not true. We want these people to stay."
Activists, representing a coalition of advocacy groups, rode the elevators to the sixth floor to confront Williams, who was out of the building at the dedication of an elementary school. Several of Williams's senior aides met with the group until Williams arrived and talked with them for 25 minutes, according to his spokesman.
"The mayor made the point that this administration had delivered, not just talked about, more affordable housing units than other administrations," spokesman Tony Bullock said. Still, he added, "the mayor was careful not to commit to any particular level of funding at this time until we see where we are."
The issue of affordable housing has come to the fore in recent years as the city's housing market has spiked dramatically, with developers turning out expensive condominiums in areas that once offered more moderately priced housing options.
The council and mayor, at the urging of activists, revived the under-used Housing Production Trust Fund more than a year ago by approving a new funding formula for the program. The trust fund was designed to provide loans or grants to build or rehabilitate affordable housing and to offer rental assistance, down payments or mortgage assistance to the poor. Under the funding plan, 15 percent of the city's revenue from deed recordings and transfers would be dedicated to the trust fund, about $22 million last year.
However, because of budget concerns, the mayor reduced the amount to $11.5 million and the council later cut it to $5 million. (The cuts were offset because the trust fund scored a one-time payoff of about $20 million from the sale of city properties.)
"We should be increasing the trust fund, not decreasing it," said Raul Rodriguez of the Central American Resource Center.
With the money it received last year, the trust fund has begun work on 2,055 affordable units, said Robert Pohlman, the executive director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development.
Williams is scheduled to deliver his 2004 budget request to the council on March 17. But the city's finances have suffered along with those of most other cities in the wake of poor stock market performance and a generally sluggish economy. Just last week, Natwar M. Gandhi, the city's chief financial officer, said the District was facing an additional shortfall of $128 million, of which about $68 million needed to be made up in spending cuts.
Rallying the crowd to push for more funding, Evans told them that "if we are not successful, we're going to yell at the mayor. Every time you see the mayor, stop him and say it. Let your voices be heard."
But Bullock said that Williams will not be swayed by demonstrations.
"We also have activists for health care and education, crime and public safety -- it's not like if you scream the loudest, you get what you came for. All these priorities have to be addressed," Bullock said. "The council and mayor are going to have to make the difficult decisions."