by bex kolins with Nkechi Feaster
Nkechi Feaster is a low-income single mother who works as an organizer for Organizing Neighborhood Equity DC (One DC). She spoke with me about her experiences at DC General, the city’s homeless shelter for families, the District’s Rapid re-housing program, and what she calls a “strategic plan by the DC government to maintain a cycle of poverty for low-income communities.”
Feaster worked as an administrator for nearly 13 years, starting her career in 2000, until she experienced her first layoff in 2007. This lay off prefigured the layoff crisis, resulting in Feaster losing the next two jobs she had within the next four years before eventually getting evicted from her apartment in 2011. Before her last layoff, she was making close to $40,000 a year. After this lay off in 2011, she spent the next 11 months in DC General.
When she was looking for housing, Feaster shares that she had difficulty finding apartments in Southeast for under $900, “typically the area where you pay the least for rent,” which might suggest a strategic plan by the government to make housing affordable to a certain type of person, thereby making it unaffordable to others. “It’s interesting that the government is saying, not verbally, but by actions that we want a certain demographic moving into the city, which is why all these condos are going up.”
She was in transitional housing when the condos in Gallery Place were being built and has noted the change in housing priority by the government since then. “What I’m seeing in change is not matched. Rent has gone up to ridiculous amounts. [But] there has been no change in subsidy programs. There has been no change in money going to homeless services, no change in the unemployment rate on the South Side, no change in the minimum wage. Even the change that was just voted won’t take place for another year … while condos will still be going up. Houses aren’t really going up like that, not even townhouses.” It’s clear to see how prioritizing “luxury housing”, especially condos and apartments that rent for upwards of $2000 a month, is attracting certain people to DC and very strategically pushing others out, especially families and low-income communities.
Although Feaster understands that the government may want to attract specific demographics (predominately white, upwardly mobile, young professionals), incentives that are put in place to attract, what she calls the “wanted demographic,” are pushing out the communities who were born here, and the communities who are committed to living in this city for the long term. By realizing how the DC government encourages the development of expensive luxury units while simultaneously creating more barriers for housing programs, Feaster says it is “not hard to call it racist” when they make it so clear that if you can’t afford to live here, then you can leave. It is obvious to see who can, and who cannot, stay.
While it is certainly clear to see how the continual creation of expensive condos and apartments unmatched by affordable housing sends a message of who the DC government wants to keep in the city, we can also see this strategic pushing out of low-income individuals in a “cycle of poverty” that has been set up. During our conversation, Feaster talked about a young lady she had met who had been working at a daycare in Southeast for nearly a year while also living at a shelter. During this time, she had been trying to get a voucher for her child to attend the same daycare. It took her that entire year to get a voucher so she could place her child in that same daycare.
What if she had worked at a job where they were unwilling to understand that she needed to leave work sometimes to take care of her child? What can you do when you are an employer, and your employee calls out constantly because they have to watch their children because they are unable to acquire a voucher for childcare?
The way it is set up now in many cases, is that you need a voucher in order to get a job, or to start looking for a job, but getting that voucher could take a year or two, and you need one voucher before you can get another voucher. This set-up where you need one voucher before you can get another voucher, is what Feaster meant when she talked about the “cycle of poverty.” “So if you can’t afford to work because you can’t get childcare straight then you won’t be able to afford a place in a city. It’s set up to fail. It’s a perpetual ‘cycle of poverty’” and it is this cycle, this system that was built to fail, that is continuing to make it impossible (or close to it) to find employment and housing if you are homeless or low-income. “My biggest argument, if I have these few barriers that keep me from a livable wage, and everyone else has so many more issues, what
does that tell you about the way things are set up?”
While there are many different housing programs the city pushes, Feaster believes that the government and the people who make the laws are out of touch with how these laws affect people. Rapid re-housing, for example, is a program that offers a 4-month subsidy where the new tenant’s first month’s rent and security deposit are paid for. Then, the tenant is offered a subsidy for the cost of rent and is required to pay 30% of the subsidy. When Feaster began the program, she was on unemployment and was therefore qualified, but by the time she moved into her apartment, her unemployment benefits stopped and she had no income for about a year.
She was able to continue re-certifying at the current rate because she didn’t have employment, but once she was hired at One DC in August, she had re-certified for the third time and was unaware that each time you re-certify, the percentage you must pay of the subsidy increases. She now must pay 50% of the subsidy. This program won’t pay for transportation, basic housing needs, or utilities, adding even more of a burden to someone who may be unemployed, looking for a job, and still in need of acquiring a voucher to send their child to daycare.
Ultimately, DC government seems to be intentionally out of touch with the needs of low-income and homeless people in DC and continues to make it increasingly more difficult to seek assistance. “The Jim Crow Era is not done,” Feaster explains, and it is evident how the constant creation and re-creation of barriers for people seeking employment or housing supports a strategy by the city to move in white, single, young professionals, and push anyone else out.
bex kolins is a local activist who does work in LGBTQ prisoner solidarity, housing justice in DC, and mountain justice in West Virginia.