When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser held her final budget engagement forum of the year recently in Northeast, housing emerged as the primary issue of concern but economic development, particularly more full service-grocery stores east of the Anacostia River, also loomed as a consideration.
On Feb. 22, Bowser, with the assistance of her deputy mayors, sought the advice of nearly 400 residents at the Kenilworth Recreation Center in Ward 7 on what she should prioritize on her fiscal year 2020-2021 budget, set to be released on March 19.
Bowser previously held budget forums in Ward 5 on Feb. 18 and in Ward 3 on Feb. 20.
Forty tables in the center’s gymnasium had eight or nine residents sitting around them, with a facilitator from the Bowser administrator managing the discussion on the mayor’s budget priorities.
Each of the tables had sheets with categories such as schools, transportation, public safety, health care, housing and economic development listed on them. Residents had the charge to list the categories and a dollar figure to the areas that they think are important, with $100 being the cap.
For example, a resident could list schools as their top priority and may allocate $40, followed by public safety $20, education $20 and housing $20, equaling $100.
To influence residents, the deputy mayors of public safety, health and human services, education, operations and infrastructure and economic development had five minutes to explain why their subject areas should get the most money.
After the deputy mayors spoke, Bowser said the responses of the residents will be considered as she and her team draft the budget.
Many residents listed the lack of affordable housing as the primary area that Bowser should address.
“Some many people in D.C. are being displaced,” said the Rev. Dr. Lewis T. Tait Jr., senior pastor of The Village church in Southeast. “A lot of residents are spending 30-40 percent of their incomes on housing when experts say they are only supposed to spend up to 30 percent to be housed.
“The median cost of a house in D.C. is $536,000 and that is out of range for a lot of people,” Tait said. “I live in Ward 5 and I really don’t know whether I could afford to purchase the house I live in today.”
Tait said Bowser should allocate money for more affordable housing so that “police officers and teachers can live in the city where they work.” He also said the mayor’s budget proposal should include more money to help the homeless find housing.
“When you are homeless, you don’t feel good about yourself,” Tait said. “When you have housing, you feel more dignified.”
Tim Hampton, a Ward 1 resident who helped lead the discussion at his table, agreed with Tait.
“Without housing, the other services don’t matter,” he said. “As a student, it is difficult to learn when you don’t have a home to go to. If you don’t have a home, it’s hard for you to take your meds [medication]. Nothing else really matters. Housing is the bedrock.”
In response to the many concerns regarding affordable housing, Acting Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio talked about Bowser’s goal of having 36,000 new units by 2025.
“We really need you all to get behind that,” Falcicchio said to those in attendance. “We are all in this together.”
While economic development didn’t top the list of priorities for many residents, most mentioned it as their second or third concern.
“We need more grocery stores in Ward 7,” said Jean Thomas, who lives in the Deanwood section of Ward 7. “I go to the Safeway at the East River Park Shopping Center and have to wait in long lines to buy food that I don’t think it is the best. I do have a car and can drive out to Maryland or across the river, but I don’t want to do that. I want to shop over here.”
There are three full-service grocery stores located east of the Anacostia River, with two located in Ward 7 and one in Ward 8 while in Ward 1 there are eight according to D.C. Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7).
Ward 6 resident Ify Bozimo said education is “the foundation of everything we do” but that economic development is also important.
“I have a grocery store near me and I believe everyone in the city should,” she said.