A public investment in low-income homeowners and renters

December 7th, 2015

By Audrey Lyon

This piece was originally published in the Washington Post, here

The remarkable wave of real estate development across the District is difficult to miss. Many neighborhoods that a short time ago were frozen in decades-old economic stagnation have new residential and commercial buildings.

The new energy sweeping these neighborhoods is encouraging, but I can’t help asking where this leaves the low- and moderate-income people who lived in these areas. And what’s the plan for helping those still there to stay rooted and secure? The rising tide of development doesn’t usually lift the boats of those with fewer resources.

Too often, a city’s answer to neighborhood revitalization is much like one by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who announced in September a plan to provide more than $50 million in public funds to the Wizards and Mystics basketball teams to build a practice facility and arena on the campus of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital.

“With this new development,” Bowser said in a news release, “we are driving private investment to the St. Elizabeths East campus, boosting the local economy, creating hundreds of jobs, and putting more District residents on their pathways to the middle class.”

The public investment in St. Elizabeths has, as the mayor hoped, triggered development of a new complex of apartments, offices and retail above the Congress Heights Metro station. Getting it done will require razing four rent-controlled apartment buildings, home to poor, elderly and fixed-income residents. These buildings are owned, according to residents quoted by The Post, “by two politically connected developers, who have failed to make improvements to the four apartment buildings even as many residents live in squalor.” The consolation to these displaced residents: A mere $1,200 in moving costs and the potential to live in the new building – but in smaller units.

Local governments prime the pump of investment to build a city’s economic vitality. The Shaw neighborhood’s housing developments Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, Lincoln Westmoreland and Channing E. Phillips are among the few good examples of the use of public funds to encourage investment in housing. But why do government officials routinely assume it makes more economic sense to invest, say, $50 million in a facility for a sports team than to make similar commitments to help longtime community residents stay put?

I’ve spent more than two decades working with D.C. residents who own homes in or near these changing neighborhoods and who don’t stand a chance of keeping up with rising tax assessments, let alone the costs to keep their homes maintained. Most have lived long enough in their residences to own them outright. But, even when they hold down steady jobs, they don’t have the money to repair leaking roofs, fix broken
plumbing and electrical systems or make them accessible to a family member using a wheelchair. They are trapped in conditions that most of us would find intolerable.

But there is little, if any, “public investment” in helping them restore their homes to even basic levels of comfort and safety. And there are almost no serious resources for low-income renters to stay put in the communities they’ve called home for decades. Why not use public money to help modest homeowners and renters to remain where they want to be?

If publicly supported private development boosts the local economy, wouldn’t a government-subsidized home-repair program do that, too? Such a program could give steady work to carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians and others. And it could put low-income homeowners on the path to economic security.

The D.C. Single Family Residential Rehabilitation Program provides qualified District residents up to $75,000 in loans or grants for roof repair, accessibility and other basic fixes. But, most of the homeowners I know who looked into the program could not navigate its complex rules and onerous requirements. That could explain why this program helped far fewer homeowners repair their homes last year than my much smaller organization, which has a tiny pool of funding compared with the District’s program.

I’m not saying it is never appropriate to provide public funding that enables well-resourced private entities to invest in seemingly risky areas of the city. But the benefits of this conventional model of urban economic development almost never trickle down to the least well-off. It’s time for a truly effective multi-pronged approach that invests smartly at different points on the economic continuum.

Home for the Holidays Project Update

December 7th, 2015

We began working with Renee Jackson during the summer. Ms. Jackson is a homeowner who is raising her four teenage to young-adult daughters and four granddaughters all on her own.

Ms. Jackson has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair to move about. Her two-story home is not accessible and she faced great difficulty getting in and out of her home. Over the summer, eighteen high schools students under the supervision of Roy Thilberg, a general contractor, participated in Yachad’s Ramp It Up! Program and built a 50-foot ramp along the back of her house.

With the ramp completed, we are now working on critical interior modifications to the home. The project officially began at the end of November, when 15 students from University of Maryland Hillel participated in a Fall Good Deeds Day with us.

Led by Thillberg, the students learned demolition skills and stripped down two rooms so that they can be transformed into a fully accessible first floor bedroom and bathroom with a roll-in shower..

The project will be finished shortly after the holidays so Ms Jackson can begin the New Year in a home that she can enjoy completely.

Shanah Tova 5776

September 17th, 2015

From Audrey Lyon, Yachad Executive Director

After Rosh Hashanah services, I did some informal polling of both congregants and clergy from different synagogues and found that many sermons delivered during this season of repentance focused on the issue of racial justice in our country—the lack of it, the struggle to define it, efforts to seek and work toward it .

Racial justice is a serious and real issue, with many calls for action in the Jewish and greater communities. A call for action is important, but our attempts to grasp at what can be done are often confusing and unclear.

I have good news for you and your involvement with Yachad. This organization’s creation has always been premised on creating opportunities to make a tangible difference in the immediate lives of people with whom we work. We bring communities together, by working side-by-side with low-income homeowners, churches, synagogues, nonprofit partners, and hundreds of volunteers. We are sharing our resources, expertise and labor to create a better place for many in need to call home.

For the past twenty-plus years, my mantra has been that it all starts “AT HOME.” Without a safe place to eat, sleep, relax, study and celebrate, it’s that much harder to go out each day and function well in the world. We all need a foundation from which to start.

Yachad works hard to make that happen each year for as many people and families as possible. All of us at Yachad —you, board members, advisory council members, volunteers, donors and staff — we are doing the work to bring about greater racial justice in our country. Our greatest challenge is WE NEED TO DO MORE. With your help, our fabulous supporters, we will make sure that 5776 accomplishes even more than ever.

Shana Tova to everyone and a sweet new year in 5776.

Working b’yachad with Avodah

August 3rd, 2015

A letter of gratitude from Yachad’s Avodah Corps Member

The Hebrew word Yachad means together-and that is how we do our work. B’yachad, in togetherness, is a central tenet in the relationship that we build between ourselves (the staff at Yachad and our skilled contractors) and our homeowners. This relationship is also fostered between the homeowners’ families and the volunteers who are all brought together by the sweat and determination of a common goal.
These families and volunteer groups are ultimately bonded together through something higher. You can call it prayer or connection to a higher power or even a connection to G-D. We can also simply acknowledge the “something higher” as a communal feeling to do good and to help others. We are all inspired to help keep DC, families and affordable housing strong-and we are all pushed by that special feeling that comes over us while doing this work.

This is similar to the concept “Avodah” and can be a word to describe that special, spiritual feeling we get when repairing homes with Yachad. Avodah is a Hebrew word that means a few things: work, prayer and service. It can also be interpreted to the action of prayer through service work. If you’ve ever heard the idea of ‘praying with your feet,’ then we’re on the right track–this idea that we can feel the most spiritual at times of action. The connection between Avodah (work, prayer and service) and the work that Yachad does (together) makes sense to me.

(Avodah Corpps member-Kaety on the job)

Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, works with young Jews around the world that are interested in social justice and anti-poverty work. These socially-minded Jews are placed at ground-moving non-profits around our city (and others!) to make real change in the community. Yachad is one of those non-profits. For two years, Yachad has had an Avodah corps member serve as their Program Associate. Yachad and Avodah are truly a partnership in work, service, prayer and togetherness.

Last month at Ramp It Up, our summer camp for teens, two fellow Avodah corps members spoke with our Rampers. Hannah Weilbacher, from Jews United for Justice, spoke about her experiences and the importance of making change. Also during camp, Milicent Dranoff, from the JCC and Behrend Builders, spoke on the importance of social justice and encouraged teens to be passionate about social issues. On a daily basis, we refer and receive referrals from corps members at other Avodah placements like Behrend Builders, Bread for the City, and Housing For All–together we best serve the DC community.

(Far Left: Hannah Weilbacher: Avodah Corps Member at JUFJ)

This is what meaningful work together looks like, Avodah B’yachad!

As my year with Yachad and Avodah comes to a close, I am so grateful for all that I learned, for the partnerships, the togetherness, the spirituality I’ve felt, the change I’ve made and the connections I’ve bridged. Thank you for supporting Yachad and their partnership with Avodah.

So happy for the experience and for what the future has ahead,
Kaetlin Ritchie-Yachad Program Associate
Avodah Corps Member 14′-15′

Wisdom from Ramp It Up! Week 2!

July 6th, 2015

Each summer, we feature TWO outstanding essays from our Rampers. Here’s our Week 2 Featured Essay!

Week 2 Ramper Essay:

“Through working for Yachad in the Ramp It Up camp, I have learned many things. What I have taken away ranges from personal improvement, such as learning many new construction related skills, to a broader knowledge on life with disabilities or life with poverty.

One of the main points I have learned from this camp is how something as simple as a ramp can hold a community together. By building this ramp, I have learned how it will allow Ms. Jackson to hold and keep her social and community ties intact when she would otherwise be stuck in her house. However, the ramp does not only strengthen the community on the side of Ms. Jackson. Our own community, the Jewish community, was strengthened by building this ramp. In building this ramp, I put myself in situations that would not have otherwise occurred with people I would not have otherwise met. This increased the bond between the members of our community and built a bridge between out community and Ms. Jackson’s community, evident when Mia (Ms. Jackson’s daughter) worked with us for many days as though she was part of the community. And that is because Mia was a part of the community. Through building the ramp, Mia and Ms. Jackson’s family were accepted into our community and vice versa.

As I built this ramp I also learned and had many realizations about poverty and low-income families. I was able to clearly see as I built the ramp that someone in a low income facility, in a low income neighborhood is not inherently bad due to their situation. I guess this goes to the nature vs. nurture debate, and it was made that argument less clear for me. I can no longer clearly take either side. Although, the people in Ms. Jackson’s neighborhood, or at least family, were amiable in every way, that could not and should not be assumed to apply to the whole neighborhood. I realized this as I was listening to the radio and a story about I-Phone thefts and metro stations occurred. I could not think this was a coincidence when they mentioned more I-Phones being stolen at the Capitol Heights station, Ms. Jackson’s neighborhood’s station, more than any other stations mentioned. I still do not know whether this is due to poverty causing a higher percentage of people with a predilection to crime, or whether the poverty sets people in a situation where they believe they need to resort to crime. Either way, I have learned by building this ramp that poverty may be a negative effect, sometimes resulting in people resorting to crime, however it does not necessarily effect everyone negatively, such as the Jackson family, if there are people or organizations like Yachad that are willing to help improve their lives.

On a personal level, by building this ramp I gained many skills related to construction that I would not have otherwise. I think I drilled more during these two weeks than in my whole life prior to this camp. People like Roy (the contractor) and Pastor Jose (the carpenter) were able to teach me many skills which I can apply throughout the rest of my life. Due to the knowledge I gained through building this ramp of cutting, drilling, digging, mixing, hammering and more, I will be able to more successfully contribute and apply these skills to other community service projects in my future.”

Wisdom from Ramp It Up! Week 1

July 6th, 2015

Each summer, we feature TWO outstanding essays from our Rampers. Here’s our Week 1 Featured Essay!

Week 1 Ramper Essay:

“As I reflect on my experience this past week at Yachad’s Ramp It Up camp, I am left with many important lessons. These lessons include the importance of affordable housing, social justice and community service. Although I have heard about affordable housing and social justice, I have never experienced them first hand. My experience this week working at the Jackson family home made me appreciate the importance of affordable housing to those who are less fortunate than me.

The first day of camp was especially challenging and was probably the hardest of all 5 days. At first, I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know the counselor, contractor or carpenter. As the days passed I continued to feel more comfortable around the campers, staff and even the Jackson family. Each day became easier as we formed a routine and could actually see the beginning formations of the ramp. Each morning I looked forward to the work ahead of me and what we would accomplish that day. Something that I really enjoyed was working with Ms. Jackson’s daughter, Mia. Even though Mia was not signed up to help us work this week, she voluntarily decided to help. She consistently took initiative, whether it was when a speaker asked someone to read, or it was when Roy (the contractor) asked us to do something. Her determination inspired me to push harder and to not give up.

This week has made me a stronger person both physically and mentally. throughout this week, our group dug 19 holes each 30 inches deep. After we passed our inspection we filled them with cement, and placed wooden blocks in the cement to stabilize the ramp. This work required a tremendous amount of effort, focus and teamwork. Despite the tedious work, we were able to make the most of it and enjoy our time together. I was able to become friendly with people I had known of, but had never really been friends with before. I was also given the opportunity to try things I had never done before, such as dig holes and mix cement. This week not only made me stronger, it also made me wiser. From the discussions at lunch, to our guest speakers, I feel that I have gained a larger insight into homelessness, poverty and social justice. I looked forward to our daily discussions and appreciated that the speakers took time out of their busy lives to come and talk to us.

I am fortunate to have taken part in this week’s Ramp It Up and fortunate to have been given the opportunity to help those less fortunate than me. I know that our ramp will be a major help to Ms. Jackson and change her life for the better. Thanks for a great week!”

You did it! Ramp It Up 2015!

July 2nd, 2015

Ramp It Up! 20 teens, 2 weeks and a 55′ ramp!

A few words from the teens who mad it all happen:

“…I realized how we were not only helping the Jackson family and Ms. Jackson, but they were also helping us. They were giving us a great opportunity to really do
something meaningful.”

“…By using just a week of my time an amazing feat can be accomplished.”

“I learned at Ramp It Up! how fun and productive it is to work as a team. When we finished I felt all the more satisfied because I knew that I had done that with a lot of other people and we had all accomplished this together.”

“This is what Tikkun Olam is all about.”

“What I have taken from these two weeks ranges from personal improvement, such as learning many new construction related skills,
to a broader knowledge on life with disabilities or life with poverty.”

“I got to contribute my time and abilities and actually got to spend time with the family that was being helped. This was truly gratifying.”

“…Through the talks I got to hear about disability rights, social justice, poverty and gentrification. All of the talks helped to see a larger image of what we were
doing there on this ramp.”

“Building this ramp increased the bond between members of our community and built a bridge between our community and Ms. Jackson’s community.”


Sukkot in Spring: Where what I can do meets what needs to be done!

May 13th, 2015

Sukkot in Spring:
Where what I can do
meets what needs to be done!

Thank you to our homeowners and volunteers.

16 homes repaired
2 neighborhoods empowered
100+ volunteers
and 61 individuals supported

With the help of our volunteers:

American University Hillel
University of Maryland Hillel 3x
Adas Israel, Adat Shalom, Temple Micah, Temple Sinai, Tifereth Israel, Fabrangen, Washington Hebrew Congregation, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, CohnReznick,
The JBG Companies, and many more…

B’yachad (together) we are:
1 Washington, DC

Thank you for your positive impact.

Letter to the Editor re: “Stay and Wait” story

April 15th, 2015

A Letter to the Editor: by Audrey Lyon, Yachad Executive Director

Letter to the Editor re: Metro Section story: “Stay and Wait” by Frederick Kunkle

Frederick Kunkle’s (Metro, April 13, 2015) reporting about the problems plaguing the D.C. Government’s Single Family Home Repair Program shines a welcome light on the challenges many of the city’s seniors face when they need critical home repair. As troubling as the programs delays and poorly performed repairs are, I can say from my perspective as the head of nonprofit local home-repair organization that the problem is far more wide-spread than even this article describes. The consequences for our city’s most economically fragile lower-income homeowners and on the communities around them are enormous. These homes are providing the last bastion of affordable housing to multiple generations of family members often within one home. Much attention is given to people without homes at all, but lurking just below this crisis is the serious and largely overlooked problem of dangerous and substandard housing in many of our city’s neighborhoods. This problem is underreported because there is no new unit of housing to point to or a family unit to show moving out of a homeless shelter. However, these families are in a silent crisis too.

This is housing that is often older, and has been owned by families for multiple generations. It will be gone either through on-going deferred repairs or gentrification. It is grandparents living with children, grandchildren and others in homes where the family is one step away from homelessness due to leaking roofs, dangerous electrical issues, toilets and sinks that don’t work.

Unfortunately, there are precious few resources and attention given to working with these families to ensure functional homes.

We need DHCD’s Single Family Home Repair Program with its significant resources to run efficiently and safely to help not only our city’s seniors but the hundreds of other families where a functional home is the first step to insuring a family’s success.

Audrey Lyon
Executive Director
Yachad, Inc.

About Yachad:
Yachad’s mission is to bring communities together by preserving affordable homes and revitalizing neighborhoods throughout the District of Columbia and the greater metropolitan area. Yachad means “together” in Hebrew, and that is how we do our work through partnerships with homeowners, houses of worship, nonprofits, and other community stakeholders. We mobilize skilled and unskilled volunteers, invest financial resources, and, through our work together, transform people and properties. Our mission is rooted in the Jewish commitment to seek justice by engaging in acts of loving kindness. We welcome people of all faiths to share in our work to keep our communities diverse and vital.


Get to know our neighborhoods

April 14th, 2015

Yachad’s homeowners make our work special

We want you to get to know the neighborhoods we’ll be working in this Sukkot in Spring!

Get to know our neighborhoods…
Over the next few months, we will repair the homes of families in two DC neighborhoods. Together, we can keep these neighborhoods diverse and thriving and can give homeowners the safety and security that they deserve.

Lamond-Riggs, NE

Lamond-Riggs is home to four of our homeowners, rich with history and alive with new energy! The neighborhood is right off of the Fort Totten metro stop and is energized by the abundance of family friendly public space. It is home to a historic public library, the Lamond Recreational Center, Riggs Park, and Food and Friends.

Lamond-Riggs is the neighborhood of Mayor Muriel Bowser. When meeting with homeowners here, they proudly told us that the Mayor lives a few streets down!

This is a community that values public space! Click here for more on the history and fight for the Lamond-Riggs Library!

Skyland, SE

The tight-knit Skyland community is home to eleven of our homeowners and is in the heart of Historic Anacostia: once home to Frederick Douglass, Ezra Pound, Marvin Gaye, and the former mayor of D.C., Marion Barry. Here you can visit the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum, the Frederick Douglass House, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, new public libraries and good eats…just to name a few!

The big chair is a well-known DC landmark. For generations, people have flocked to this tourist attraction, claiming to be ‘the largest chair in the world.’ Musicians and activists alike have been featured here.

Want to try a new neighborhood restaurant while you’re in the area?
Check out Nurish Food & Drink!

Volunteer for Sukkot in Spring and explore these neighborhoods on your own: Meet our homeowners and their families, and be an active part in keeping these DC neighborhoods thriving! Join us April 26th and/or May 3rd to volunteer. Contact your group leader or the staff at Yachad to sign up for Sukkot in Spring and please specify your home repair skill level.

See you around the neighborhood!