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TRNN Replay: The Real News On Race with Jared Ball talks with Empower DC about the fight for affordable housing

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JARED BALL, ASST. PROF., MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY: And welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball. And welcome to our new segment, The Real News on Race. You know, despite there being a black president and plenty of black famous faces from people to choose from, there remains a great degree of inequality along the lines of race in this country and around the world. For instance, within the broader economic crisis there remains a persistent gap in income levels between black and white Americans that sees black people earning only about $0.62 on the white dollar. Single working-age women of color have a median net worth of only $5 compared to $42,000 for their white female counterparts. And even before this most recent economic crisis, the Economic Policy Institute concluded that for black America the recession is permanent. There is also the burgeoning prison-industrial complex, which is now one of America’s biggest businesses. And because black America is only 13 percent of the population but more than half of the prison population, where 80 percent are there for nonviolent drug-related offenses, scholars like Lawrence Bobo refer to this as creating new internal colonies. And Michelle Alexander has called this the new Jim Crow. Theologian James Cone has also called this a modern-day lynching and has equated the prison-industrial complex and the continuance of ghettos and projects as terrorism. This and more has led people like legal scholar Derek Bell to conclude that the public policy impact of this nation on black America is tantamount to having hundreds of black people weekly taken randomly to secluded places and shot. And in this city, Washington, DC, we see similar inequality, where 49 percent of black adults are unemployed, while nationally, black America is suffering the greatest long-term unemployment rate it has seen since 1948. So what we want to do is actually talk with people who are doing something about these kinds of issues. And joining us to talk about these and other related issues are Linda Leaks and Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, a locally based Washington, DC, nonprofit grassroots organization committed to challenging and confronting these and many related issues. Linda, [Parisa] Norouzi, welcome. Thank you for joining us. Why don’t we start off? Tell us a little bit about Empower DC, its history, and how long you’ve been around, and particularly what you deal with.

PARISA NOROUZI, EMPOWER DC: Empower DC was founded by Linda and I in 2003. And we saw the need for an organization that was solely focused on developing the confident self-advocacy of low- and moderate-income DC residents who are directly impacted by the housing crisis and other social issues. So we–as a principle, we work with groups of people who share a common concern and we assist groups of residents with developing an action plan and carrying it out to demand that their voices be heard, that they have influence on the policies and decisions that are directly impacting their lives. And we are citywide, we’re membership-based, and we have hundreds of members throughout the district who are working on affordable housing, quality affordable child care, improving public education, and saving public property.

BALL: You know, the president spoke this past week. We’ve been hearing a lot lately about these austerity measures and the freezing of government spending on nonmilitary issues. President Obama said this again during the State of the Union just this past week. Linda, tell us a little bit about how this impacts specifically the work you all are doing around public housing and housing in general in the city.

LINDA LEAKS, EMPOWER DC: [inaudible] Well, we are looking at some serious issues around housing. We are looking at losing the little, quote-unquote, “affordable” housing, subsidized, federally subsidized housing that we have in this country, as of March 4, when the continuing resolution expired. But what is happening with these historic cuts, we’re looking to lose, like, 750,000, almost half of the Section 8 housing subsidy and the public housing subsidy. And in DC it’s going to be a major, major kind of devastation, because we are looking at losing about 5,000 Section 8 vouchers, tenant-based voucher. We only have 11,000. And so we’re looking to lose that. And people don’t have anyplace to go. We’re looking–the public housing budget, which has already been cut almost in half over the last eight years–people say eight. I say 16, ’cause I count the Clinton years. They were not good to low-income people. But the Bush administration in particular had already almost decimated the budget for affordable housing. So when we have Mr. [John] Boehner and the Republican come in and say they’re going to cut the discretionary budget by 21 percent–and that’s what they said January 5 when he received a gavel and they took charge–we’re talking about almost eliminating the HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] budget which subsidized low-income housing. And that’s going to be really, really a serious problem for families in this country, in this city, for elderly and people who are disabled. We are looking at some serious, serious housing issues. That’s not even to consider talking about getting rid of the Pell Grant and talking about getting rid of other funding that help support people. This is just the housing budget. And so we’re looking to some really historic hard times we’re facing.

BALL: Now, DC is not unlike other major cities, in that there is a pretty serious racial divide in the city in terms of where people live and how different communities are treated in this city. We have what is called in this city the “east of the river” divide, which is sort of meant to simplify that point. Gentrification is a major problem, people moving in, other people being forced out. DC is now down to 52 percent black population, once–which was once chocolate city. What are the numbers specifically? Can we go further into those numbers in terms of people being moved out and the impact that these austerity measures will have that you started to touch on just a moment ago?

LEAKS: Well, I can’t tell you the numbers in terms of how many African people, how many people of color are going to be hurt. We know it’s the majority. And when we talk about gentrification, it’s racial-based, in that gentrification is about disinvestment, period, disinvestment and bringing in–when you bring in a new group of people into a area, then the money flow, the loans from banks flow in. So you bring in a new population and the money flow behind them. But before that, you know, ’cause we like to talk about how gentrification, the goodness of gentrification–which for me is a myth, because nobody like to live in bad conditions, but our folks were not able to get loans from the banks. You know, you had [inaudible] there’s no [inaudible] So African people were not able to get loans, people of African descent in this city and other people of color. So, yes, of course our community become blighted. And disinvestment by the government [inaudible] you don’t come in and fix the roads. You don’t do anything. So, yes, the neighborhood become blighted. And then that sets it up. That’s what [inaudible] it sets it up to bring in a new population of people. So that’s what has happened in the District of Columbia. And we see this process moving to east of the river, as we call it, to other–Ward 7 and Ward 8, where most of the African-American people live, across a river, we see this effort moving. And we look at this Ward 1 area in particular that has been, quote-unquote, “gentrified”, where our people have been forced out, where we look at that and we see this whole nimbyism, which is a serious problem in this city. It’s a serious problem in other places, but it is really serious here. We have–with the little resources that some of the nonprofits have to develop housing for people who have to live on the street, we have folks who just moved in who have housing and have secure jobs right this minute are saying no, you cannot put those low-income people in my neighborhood. What kind of sense does that make? And that’s what we have here in the District of Columbia.

BALL: Now, in just a few quick minutes here, we have, again, a black president, and this city has had black mayors for as long as I can remember. We just have a reelection–or a new election, where Mayor Fenty, Adrian Fenty, was replaced by Vincent Gray, another longtime black DC resident. How has that, if at all, impacted–’cause we hear the austerity measures coming down from the presidency, we hear Vincent Gray saying the same thing, more or less, in terms of what is going to be cut in terms of DC’s budget. To what extent is this, you know, impacting the response to all of this, the race of the president, the race of the mayors? Like, how does that play out in the work that you do?

LEAKS: Well, as far as I see it, it’s about power, who has the power. We see–if we look at the so-called black mayors, the African-American mayors, they pander to people with money. That’s who they move after. When our new mayor comes in and talk about, what, one city, well, we need to say one city, everybody helping each other, because we are looking at people around housing, in particular with the local budget, looking at losing our little system with emergency housing, losing housing with this $600 million cut that we’re looking at. But we’re not looking at how we can raise the taxes on the $200,000 and above. So we’re not saying one city, everybody helping everybody; we’re just saying one city. And we saw our new mayor run to those people who voted against him and voted for the other mayor and say, oh, listen, you all–. That’s probably what he said. I would have said, listen y’all, but he said, listen, you all, we need to–you know, we need to come together, and this is one city. No, not one–one city, everybody helping everybody. Let’s share the problems that we are having.

BALL: So there’s a lot more to get to. In another segment, let’s talk about child care, public schools, and other related issues that you all are dealing with. And thank you for joining us. This has been Jared Ball with The Real News Network, our first segment on The Real News on Race. Please stay tuned and find one of those donate buttons somewhere on the screen here and contribute to this discussion, which we know is lacking in most other places in your media environment. Thank you very much.

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Jared A. Ball is a father and husband. After that he is a multimedia host, producer, journalist and educator. Ball is also a founder of "mixtape radio" and "mixtape journalism" about which he wrote I MiX What I Like: A MiXtape Manifesto (AK Press, 2011) and is co-editor of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable's Malcolm X (Black Classic Press, 2012). Ball is an associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at IMIXWHATILIKE.ORG.