D.C. sukkah a gathering place for affordable housing meeting

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Supporters of social housing and climate change action in D.C. meet with Jews United for Justice, Sunrise DC and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George for a reflective Sukkot event. (Photo courtesy of JUFJ)

On the evening of Oct. 13, organizers and D.C. residents got together on the steps of Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center outside a sukkah to discuss social housing needs and the climate crisis.

Along with five other councilmembers, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George introduced the Green New Deal for Housing Act in April, which would “revolutionize how the District produces and preserves affordable housing by creating sustainable, climate-neutral social housing,” or publicly-owned, mixed-income housing. If passed, the bill would establish the Office of Social Housing Developments, a new agency responsible for the construction, maintenance and growth of affordable housing.

“Social housing is the critical missing piece in confronting our severe affordable housing crisis. By putting the profits and the power in the hands of the people, we can generate more of the affordable housing that is so desperately needed in D.C., while also aligning our housing policies with the urgent need to mitigate climate change,” Lewis George said.

The publicly owned housing projects would be retained as a District asset, allowing for lower rent rates in comparison to private developers. The housing projects will also have a net-zero emissions standard build, featuring sustainable designs and technology, including electric heating, minimal off-street parking and on-site solar generated energy.

Along with Sunrise D.C., nonprofit Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) assisted in organizing the event. A Jewish organization, it is rooted in the idea that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim (in the divine image) and have inherent value. JUFJ strives to ensure their work increases k’vod hab’riot (human dignity).

“JUFJ signed on [to the bill] earlier this fall,” said D.C. community organizer Jenna Israel. “There was just a really cool opportunity presented as we were figuring out what to do for our Sukkot events.”

Israel said the social housing act aligns with the theme of Sukkot, questioning what it means to have a home.

Event organizer Kush Kharod said the bill is “a long time coming.” He said there isn’t a bill that exists like it elsewhere, combining climate crisis needs, social housing justice and more into one piece of legislation.

“We’ve seen social housing work out really well in parts of Montgomery County and places in Europe,” Kharod said. He said the same communities that deal with the housing crisis are typically the same communities most impacted by climate change. “The event mobilized individuals that may not have been able to mobilize before.”

The sukkah the gathering took place outside of was wrapped in butcher paper, with reflective questions written on the outside. “What should a sustainable D.C. look like?” “What would it mean for tenants to have a say in what their building looks like?” “How can this advance racial economic justice in the District?”

After listening to speakers, including Councilmember Lewis George, the 40 attendees participated in discussion groups. “We wanted folks to do some imagining,” Israel said.

Cantor Rosalie Will, lead consultant for the Union for Reform Judaism on issues related to music and worship, led a Sunday gathering in Columbia as a “way to galvanize folks.” She said singing with each other is “one of the most important things to be able to move the work forward.”

Will has been connected with JUFJ for some time. “I’ve always been involved in progressive justice issues and walking through the doorway with music,” Will said. “Nobody does social justice without singing.”

Kharod said the next step is for supporters of the housing bill to testify at a hearing on Nov. 17.

“We need advocates and experts to testify for the bill to try and fix the harms that we’ve dealt with for so many years,” he said. The organization will guide testimony-givers with a toolkit, which can be found at http://bit.ly/gndtestimony.

Following the hearing, organizers say there will need to be a push for a vote while they continue to improve the bill to help as many residents as they can.

“You have to play your part and advocate for the people that you care about,” Kharod said. “This is really just the start of the work that we do.”

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