News & Politics

Heroes of the Crisis: A Housing Advocate Who’s Helping Vulnerable Washingtonians Fight for Themselves

Empower DC's Parisa Norouzi says that "we can actually change people’s lives.”

Photograph by Jeff Elkins

This article is part of Washingtonian‘s feature “Heroes of the Crisis.” From medical professionals to social-justice activists to culinary stars, here are some of the people who have helped get us through these most challenging of times. Read about the 15 people making a difference during the pandemic here.

Parisa Norouzi
Cofounder and executive director, Empower DC

For the last 17 years, Empower DC has helped residents of low-income neighborhoods organize themselves to address housing issues. Here’s how the group jumped into action when the pandemic hit.

The crisis: 

Covid-19 has had severe consequences for public-housing residents, particularly the 5,047 Washingtonians who live in buildings that require “extremely urgent” rehabilitation or demolition, according to the DC Housing Authority. “Can you imagine having to shelter in a place that has mold, mildew, and rodents—all conditions harming your health?” says Norouzi. When Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget allocated significantly less funding for public housing than advocates hoped, Empower DC decided to act.

The plan: 

Raising awareness of the issue was key. Norouzi’s group put together a July #BlackHomesMatter rally. (Ninety-four percent of public-housing residents in DC are people of color.) And it’s led an e-mail and social-media campaign to make its case to DC Council members. “Our work is basically: How can we support public-housing residents to hold elected officials accountable?” says Norouzi. “Because they know the problems and the solutions better than anybody, but we tend to not prioritize their voices.”

The result: 

The pressure campaign helped convince the council to add $10 million to the public-housing repair budget, for a total of $50 million. Now Norouzi’s group is pushing for high-speed internet access in all public-housing complexes—the current lack hits especially hard while school is being held remotely. Public housing represents “a confluence of so many issues that we need to address as a society,” says Norouzi. “Housing, poverty, access, and opportunity. If we invest the right resources, we can actually change people’s lives.”

This article appears in the October 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

Web Producer/Writer

Rosa joined Washingtonian in 2016 after graduating from Mount Holyoke College. She covers arts and culture for the magazine. She’s written about anti-racism efforts at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, dinosaurs in the revamped fossil hall at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, and the horrors of taking a digital detox. When she can, she performs with her family’s Puerto Rican folkloric music ensemble based in Jersey City. She lives in Adams Morgan.