Local leaders put in uncomfortable spotlight

Local leaders put in uncomfortable spotlight

For the second straight March, the social advocacy group called IMPACT (Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together) demanded that the city commit funds to affordable housing in front of hundreds of churchgoers, and for the second straight time they received a majority of affirmative responses.

Last year’s so-called Nehemiah Action was held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center and exceeded the 1,300 capacity, which meant that some people were turned away—including Holly Edwards. But as she was elected to the City Council this past November, she was assured a prominent place in this year’s meeting.

Holly Edwards says the experience of speaking to 1,900 people at U-Hall was “overwhelming.”

Space was no issue at University Hall, where approximately 1,900 people from 28 different congregations showed up to cheer on their two targeted issues: affordable housing and dental care for the poor. The sheer size of UVA’s old basketball arena also meant that the city councilors and county supervisors were gladiators isolated on a small stage in the middle of the main floor. Behind them, a dark, empty coliseum. In front, activists waiting like hungry lions.

“It was overwhelming,” Edwards says. “I’ve never spoken in front of that many people before.” She used her two minutes at the podium to gently turn the tables on the audience, beseeching them to approach the landlords and developers that sit in the pews next to them, praying and singing hymns every Sunday.

“If they would reduce the rent and the market values of their houses, they would easily bypass our contributions,” Edwards reasons. She joined three more councilors in pledging $500,000 of the city’s funds to affordable housing.

Part of the DART (Direct Action and Research Training) Network, IMPACT was initiated in 2003 and is modeled after similar organizations in other cities. As such, they are very organized and exacting.

“IMPACT doesn’t allow any middle ground,” says Edwards, agreeing that it took courage for City Councilor David Brown to follow four affirmative responses with a qualified denial. He would only give a “yes” if the county contributed an equal amount.

“The city shouldn’t be expected to resolve the region’s housing problems,” Brown says. At last year’s meeting, the city pledged $1.3 million toward affordable housing but the county didn’t fully participate. “I was kind of irritated by the whole process,” he says of last year, describing it as more “rah-rah.”

This year, the format was changed so that public officials could explain their vote before it was cast. “I think IMPACT’s a great thing,” Brown says. “They’re really focusing on the needs of the have-nots.” Still, Brown’s conditional “yes” was taken as a “no” and greeted with uncomfortable silence by the crowd.

That set the stage for the county supervisors, who lauded IMPACT’s principles but largely refused to pledge money this early in a tight budget process. Only David Slutzky and Lindsay Dorrier, Jr. would commit. Dorrier gave a rambling address on the county’s budget process before issuing a surprising “yes” to the roaring crowd’s delight.

“We can look at all avenues of possibility here,” he says. “I think we can find the money in the budget.”

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