Jeanette Bright watched her mother work two jobs, sometimes three, to raise five daughters and finally buy a home. She is close to living up to that example.
But on Saturday, surrounded by four soaring stained-glass windows and embraced by hundreds of housing advocates in the packed Foundry United Methodist Church, it was almost too much to bear.
“My mother has passed, several years ago, but I know that — ” she said, before tears shut her down. She finally added, “I know that . . . when I have my own home . . . it will be like walking in her footsteps and being in her arms once more.”
As D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) puts the final touches on her upcoming budget request and city officials gird for major cuts proposed by the Trump administration, hundreds of tenants, homeowners, social service providers and activists gathered less than a mile from the White House to nudge, persuade and pressure officials to spend more on affordable housing in the booming city.
Bowser has placed housing at the top of her agenda, and she and the other officials who appeared at what has become an annual rally voiced support for beefed-up spending. But a struggle is expected on the D.C. Council over tax cuts and dueling priorities.
The mayor also used the occasion to make a sharp-elbowed defense of her administration’s performance, after an audit released last week described broad problems with the financial management of the city’s biggest affordable-housing program.
The Housing Production Trust Fund has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 15 years. But the Office of the D.C. Auditor said the city has often failed to collect loan repayments and had not done enough to make sure developers create housing for the lowest-income residents.
“Now, some of you may have seen that the council’s auditor put out a report on the Housing Production Trust Fund. Did you see that? Who saw that?” Bowser asked. “Didn’t you think it was curious that it dropped right before the budget? I know I thought it was curious.”
The mayor also said she found it “curious” that “13 out of 14 projects reviewed were all in place before I was the mayor.”
“I don’t know what department they’re talking about. They’re not talking about my housing department, because Polly Donaldson is turning it around,” Bowser said, referring to the department’s director.
Asked later about oversight of projects developed on her watch, Bowser referred questions to Donaldson.
Donaldson said her department is following more stringent accounting requirements and taking other steps to ensure that rules are followed. She said the department has hired an outside auditor to look at projects from 2016 and will make the findings public.
Donaldson said cuts in President Trump’s proposed budget would be “devastating” to housing and other projects.
Bowser raised the idea of adding to the $100 million the city spends each year on the housing trust fund. “You want me to expand it again?” she asked the crowd, to cheers.
Advocates said they wanted to keep the heat on local and federal officials.
“If we blink for a second, there’s a chance we can lose vital resources,” said Stephen Glaude, who heads the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, which helped organize the rally.
“We’ve had historic investments in the last several years. But it’s not enough,” said another organizer, Jesse Rabinowitz, of Miriam’s Kitchen, a homeless-services provider, who pointed to dozens of deaths among the homeless last year.
Jennifer McLaughlin, 40, spent three years in a District homeless shelter starting in 2004. For some of that time she worked on an after-game cleanup crew for the Washington Redskins.
She has struggled with mental-health issues, and her family didn’t want to deal with her, she said. On her first night in the shelter, she made a rookie mistake.
“I didn’t know not to take my shoes off,” McLaughlin said.
They were gone. Later, her ID and coat were snatched. Now she’s in a housing program that provides an apartment and helps her deal with her depression. She also assists in getting other homeless people off the street.
“It’s great,” she said, “just laying down and not being around a lot of people and a lot of noise.”
Listening to Bright talk about nearing the purchase of a home, with help on closing costs from the District, McLaughlin was encouraged.
“Someday,” she said. “Someday.”