In the past month, Muriel Bowser has gone from one of four Councilmembers in a crowded pack vying for Mayor Vincent Gray's job to the candidate most likely to defeat him.
Polls show the Ward 4 Councilmember neck and neck with the mayor, with her closest opponent more than 10 percentage points away. After serving as an ANC commissioner and working on Adrian Fenty's first mayoral campaign, Bowser successfully ran for the former mayor's Council seat and currently chairs the Committee on Economic Development. Shortly before a Washington Post poll was released showing Bowser ahead of Gray for the first time, DCist spent 30 minutes at her Georgia Avenue NW headquarters. Our interview is transcribed below.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for space. As with the other interviews in our series, DCist told the candidate that "the way this will be published is my question and your full answer."
DCist: [This week] a judge ruled that the city can no longer house homeless families in recreation centers on hypothermia nights. You've been a critic of the Gray administration's handling homelessness in the city. My question is, how do you plan to help these families, and what do you plan to do with D.C. General? Do you plan to keep it open? Send families to other shelters? Improve it?
Bowser: My policy is that people don't get out of homelessness by having a bed for the night. They get out of homelessness when they have a home. We need to get back to the posture in our government that we will provide Housing First. This administration has backtracked from that model. When the stimulus funds dried up, we didn't find the local dollars to make sure that we're creating permanent supportive housing units. And that's the policy that we'll return to. We'll figure out what the cost is, make an annual commitment, and that's how you end homelessness.
What we learned from the first families and individuals that we put in those permanent supportive housing units — they're still housed. They're dealing with the issues that took them into homelessness in the first place. We also know that we're going to have to do better at funding and getting out our local rent supplement vouchers so that people who have no income or very low income can actually go out in the market and afford to get housing.
We need the right people in place, as well, that are liaisons with the Interagency homeless council, with all the various departments in our government that have some hand in housing. But we need the right people, just very practically speaking, we need to have the right people in place in advance of hypothermia season to make sure that we're doing the right thing.
I think the conditions at D.C. General, none of us can be proud of. We know that we need some low-barrier shelter, and we have to make sure that it's clean, safe and decent. But my focus will be on how do we get people out and into permanent supportive housing.
DCist: How do you balance the desires of neighbors not to have shelters or not to have mixed-use developments in their neighborhood where homeless or formerly homeless families are housed?
Bowser: I think a lot of neighbors support mixed-income housing. What neighbors don't tend to support is concentrating shelter housing. That's the model we're following in a lot of different regards — market rate, work force and permanent supportive units. We're going to be very proud, for example, to welcome on Georgia Avenue a development that's been approved for several years and now funded: The Emory Beacon of Light. It's that model of mixed incomes. That's what we want to do with all our public housing projects, as well. Have mixed-income housing.
DCist: Which hasn't worked so well with the New Communities Initiative. Tearing down housing, saying it's going to be replaced with mixed-use and still there's barely any housing, on K Street NW, for example [where Temple Courts formerly was.]
Bowser: What hasn't worked well?
DCist: Well with New Communities, hundreds of families have been displaced while only some have been put back into housing and others are still waiting.
Bowser: Do you think it worked well at Temple Courts?
Bowser: OK. So before you say it doesn't work well, let's figure out what the replacement units are going to be and speed up — what hasn't worked well is the production of new units, not the model. We want to transform communities that were dangerous and deteriorated into ones where there are more options. Those are four communities out of 8,000 units, and so we also have to speed up the investments. You know what the Housing Authority says we need for the other 6,500 public housing units? Just to bring them to 20-year viability we'll need $1 billion in investment. So we better get started because in this city we can't afford to lose any of those units.
DCist: This sort of transitions into the D.C. United/Reeves Center land swap plan. If this does go through, would you like to see affordable housing be a part of what replaces the Reeves Center?
Bowser: Affordable housing should be part of any government development, if government land is being used for development. I co-introduced a bill with Kenyan McDuffie, and I'll be holding a hearing on it soon, that would set a goal of 30 percent of units produced on the land should be at various levels of affordability. That is a goal that is reachable and doable. What you point out, though, is when you say you have a land swap, this one owner is gonna trade with us, is you don't get the plethora of ideas that come out of a competitive process. And so if we put out that the government is interested to repurpose the Reeves Center in a competitive environment, we may get all kinds of ideas.
At this point we don't really know. My guess is that Akridge wants to build housing, but we haven't really seen a proposal.
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