by Bryan Park
Have you wondered why the District of Columbia’s shelters are experiencing large numbers of the homeless? Activist Schyla Pondexter-Moore may have the answer, as she describes how the D.C. government is ignoring the plight of public housing communities, which she thinks is the primary cause of the city’s unprecedented increase in homelessness.
“If you’re tearing down these public and affordable housing units… where is that leaving the demographic of people that need the housing,” said Pondexter-Moore.
Pondexter-Moore, the housing organizer for the grass-root activist organization Empower DC, has advocated for the tenants of public housing communities in D.C. since 2007. The people living in these communities need more political voice that they need, according to Pondexter-Moore.
Empower DC primarily supports low and middle income families in D.C., to build collective political power with issues such as affordable housing, quality affordable child care, preserving public property and improving public education. Pondexter-Moore became involved after members of her own public housing community, the Highland Dwellings, faced relocation upon being renovated.
She is currently involved in community organization and speaking on the behalf of residents who have lost their homes, due to the reconstruction of public housing communities that occurs when these government-owned lands are sold to private developers, according to her.
Pondexter-Moore, herself a resident of a public housing community, describes how more than 70,000 people are currently on the waiting list for public housing. Public housing communities being torn down and turned into private land is one of the causes of fewer affordable housing options for these people, said Pondexter-Moore.
Tenants already within public housing may become lost in the complicated application process required for returning to their new homes. The confusion of returning tenants most likely occurs due to the transferring of public units to private, a change that includes new rules and regulations, said Pondexter-Moore.
“Suddenly, here comes these private rules, qualifications, and credit checks.” said Pondexter-Moore. “And not a lot of these people are going to get past that.”
The rebuilding of these public housing communities is part of the local government’s plan to create a mixed-income neighborhood, said Pondexter-Moore.
Creating a mixed-income neighborhood involves breaking down an old public housing community, privatizing the land, and building a new community filled with tenants from a greater diversity of socio-economic backgrounds. The theory is to bring wealthier tenants into these neighborhoods, to alleviate the local poverty levels, according to Pondexter-Moore.
Former residents are temporarily relocated to other public housing units in D.C., and are forced to stay until reconstruction is complete. The rebuilding could take several years to complete, and some tenants must relocate several times due to the decreasing number of available housing units, according to Pondexter-Moore.
Many of these former residents are unable to return in this process, and many could even end up becoming homeless, said Pondexter-Moore.
“Tenants moving from public housing into a complicated and unfair private system are one of the causes of them becoming homeless,” said Pondexter-Moore. “And that’s the connection that people aren’t making.”
Pondexter-Moore predicts that as more housing units in the city become demolished, the waiting list for housing will increase, and homelessness will also subsequently increase.
Pondexter-Moore also criticized D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s latest initiative to help find the homeless units of affordable housing, claiming that the plan is groundless unless there are efforts to renovate the hundreds of vacant affordable housing units in the city that are run-down, which could easily be modified and rebuilt, said Pondexter-Moore.
“[Affordable housing] is here,” said Pondexter-Moore. “It’s just a matter of the political will to use it.”
The biggest challenge facing public housing is the bad stigma that is attached to these communities, said Pondexter-Moore. She claims that this is a large reason why both authorities and those seeking homes tend to shy away from these options.
Pondexter-Moore calls on the mayor and the local government to allocate funding for repairing the vacate units and the units that are currently occupied. Taking on an initiative to rebuild, not replace is key to solving the tragedy of D.C.’s homelessness, said Pondexter-Moore.
“How can the city talk about demolishing public housing, when we’re experiencing a crisis of homelessness?” she asked. “It makes absolutely no sense.”