The Common Good
September-October 2003

This Will Not Stand

by Jim Dickerson | September-October 2003

A struggle for the soul of the city.

Two of my colleagues—highly respected in the nonprofit community—recently had their homes and offices raided by the FBI. Their names were smeared in the newspaper and false accusations brought against them through the efforts of forces opposing their work. The investigation ended with no charges filed. There had been no wrongdoing—the entire affair was politically motivated.

The big-money politics of neighborhood development have turned Washington, D.C., into a battleground of class warfare. Upper-income forces of gentrification increasingly overpower the voices of low-income residents and nonprofit groups who struggle to maintain diversity and create opportunity for those on the low end of the economic ladder.

Today, virtually none of my organization's new affordable-housing developments goes unchallenged. Recently one of our projects was blocked by the zoning board—which had just previously supported an almost-identical project designed for upper-income people.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams is aggressively campaigning to attract more than 100,000 new upper-income residents, along with a major league baseball team. He aims to build a new stadium, using $339 million in city funds, despite studies that show there will be little or no benefit to local residents and neighborhood economies. All this at a time when crucial city services are being slashed and the poor displaced.

We are locked in a struggle for the soul of our city. Will ours be a city designed for the affluent? Or will it be an inclusive community, a city that aims to have a place for all—with a special concern for those near the bottom of the economic ladder? Real estate prices have escalated such that lower-income people simply cannot afford to live here without help. Displacement is occurring on a significant scale. Homelessness is increasing.

NATIONALLY, there's an estimated shortage of 5 million affordable rental housing units. Rising costs to buy and build homes makes home ownership more difficult than ever for low-income people. Public housing is the nation's largest supplier of affordable housing—but the Bush administration is cutting operating subsidies to local public housing authorities by 10 percent. Hope VI, a successful homeownership and neighborhood revitalization program, is being eliminated completely.

Two short years ago, the federal government projected 10 years of budget surpluses—remember that? Today we are instead facing a multi-billion dollar deficit. It is now projected that there will be a 7 percent cut in social services over the next 10 years, while the Homeland Security and Pentagon budgets are on the increase. Virtually every state is dealing with massive deficits, even as needs grow.

Currently, 5.3 million of the lowest-income people in our country pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent—and many pay as much as 50 to 75 percent. Yet the Bush administration wants to give financially strapped states more flexibility to raise rents on Section 8 public housing to compensate for lowered federal funding for those states. All of these actions serve only to further foreclose on the housing needs of the poor.

The greatest agony is that while we know what works, we as society and government have not chosen that path. Affordable housing and sustainable community development are not band-aids, hand-outs, or temporary measures. They are proven, long-term solutions that liberate, break the cycle of poverty, and provide opportunity to those who need it most. We know this; there are long-standing examples across the country of it working. Yet we as a society do not choose this, even though we have the overwhelming resources and ability to do so. What we need is a national leadership—and the will—to replicate these models on a large scale throughout the country.

As a society, we say yes to a little charity but no to the equity, justice, and fundamental change that ought to roll through our nation like a mighty river. Still, we know from Jesus that, in the kingdom of God, this current state of affairs will not stand.

Jim Dickerson was chair of MANNA Inc., an affordable housing and community development organization he founded, and pastor of New Community Church in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.

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