There is much talk about raising the minimum wage both federally and locally. While this is a worthwhile endeavor, it is important to understand what it takes to support a family in the D.C. metro area.
It is more than just making more money. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s latest report on housing affordability states that a minimum wage worker in the District of Columbia would need to earn $28.25 an hour in order to rent a modest two-bedroom home. Or to put it another way, a minimum wage earner would need to work 137 hours at the current wage of $8.25 an hour.
The crisis is not just about wages. It’s about the price of housing in our region and preserving what remains of our last existing older and still-affordable housing.
This is a crisis that demands headlines, but it’s not a natural disaster or a national scandal. There are no headlines for these slowly simmering housing disasters that are devastating families living within only a few miles of the White House and even our own houses. Low-income homeowners are desperately trying to keep a roof – sometimes a leaky one – over their family’s heads. These same people – many providing housing for children and grandchildren – could end up in shelters or on the streets.
However, there are great stories about how these families have helped themselves by working in partnership with area nonprofits to preserve their homes. One example is the work led by Yachad, a D.C. nonprofit housing group, where I am executive director. Yachad, which means “together” in Hebrew, recruits and organizes the Jewish and greater communities to spend time and money to repair substandard homes together with homeowners.
Among the many organizations working with Yachad are five synagogues – Adas Israel Congregation, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Temple Micah, Temple Rodef Shalom and Washington Hebrew Congregation – that have for the last 20 years financially sponsored and volunteered to repair the homes of lower-income families. Between them, these synagogues are responsible for repairing 100 houses and thus touching the lives of 100 families. Each congregation during those years has donated money to pay for major repairs, and skilled and unskilled volunteers have enthusiastically tackled other serious housing issues so that at the end of a project, a home and its family are made whole again.
A typical Yachad homeowner is Twanna J., who is 45 years old and lives in her mother’s home in Anacostia with her three children and a grandchild. Her mother had a stroke and needed help. The home was literally falling apart. The roof and gutters were in need of serious repairs, and because of this, the ceilings in the second floor bedrooms were falling in with mold, dirt and water penetrating the walls and floors. The kitchen floor was destroyed due to an earlier plumbing problem. The kitchen sink didn’t work and the electricity throughout the home was barely working.
Yachad organized skilled workers took care of the roof and gutters and replaced the drywall. Temple Micah volunteers installed a new kitchen sink and a new floor. The electrical wiring was repaired, and volunteers painted the whole house, side-by-side with the family. Yachad’s investment stopped a disaster.
In Twanna’s thank-you note, she wrote, “In these tough times it’s a gift from God to receive this type of blessing and to know people who are kind, considerate and thoughtful. I am so very grateful. I sincerely consider you all to be part of my extended family. The house looks wonderful and I could not have done it without you.” Twanna and her family were transformed by this work.
Unfortunately, this work and these families don’t appear in any news story or report about addressing our housing crisis. This is because this work doesn’t generate massive volumes of new units, and no head count necessarily changes in a shelter because a home is safer. But to the family, who now has a new roof, working plumbing, working electrical outlets in every room, a working oven and refrigerators, it is big news and truly miraculous.
Kol Hakavod (all honor) to these synagogues, which have played a quiet, yet immensely transformative role in rebuilding the homes and lives of local families for two decades. n
Audrey Lyon is the executive director of Yachad, a nonprofit housing organization whose work is rooted in the Jewish commitment to seek justice by engaging in acts of loving-kindness.