March 28, 2017. Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

In front of nearly 1500 people gathered Monday at Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (HOPE) brought out some of the area’s most well known politicians as part of their 2017 Nehemiah Action.

HOPE is a grassroots organization consisting of 22 different faith congregations in Hillsborough. It aims to promote of justice, fairness and the dignity of all people. Among those in attendance were State Attorney Andrew Warren, County Commissioners Victor Crist and Pat Kemp and County Administrator Mike Merrill as HOPE unveiled its three major campaigns for 2017: civil citations for children to prevent often life-altering arrests, better quality affordable housing for seniors and families and better elder care.

“We come here tonight to address systemic causes of injustice,” said Friar John Tapp as he opened the event. “All our congregations do mercy in many ways … we are good at individual mercy ministries. It is good that we do things on our own to improve our community, but doing justice is different from doing mercy. Doing justice means getting to the root causes of community problems. It’s holding institutions accountable. Such work is only possible when large groups of people come together, uniting for a common purpose and a common will in order to make our society more just.”

The event was fast paced and tightly controlled, not so much a town hall as a reaffirmation of their shared goals with officials. For each topic, a HOPE member would explain the issue at hand, bring out members of the public to testify how the issue has affected them and then pose a series of questions to the politicians and allow them to speak on the topic for several minutes. The questions revolved around whether they would press the issue in their elected capacity and if they would continue dialogue with HOPE. And despite some of their divergent approaches to public policy, not a single official said no.

That’s not to say that the crowd didn’t have its favorites. Warren, a progressive Democrat who beat a powerful incumbent in November, received a warm reception, as he advocated the early success of the County’s Civil Citation/Arrest Avoidance Program and spoke of plans to work with HOPE in making it permanent.

“I’m a strong believer of criminal justice reform, which means a wide variety of policies and programs which we have here in Hillsborough and some we don’t, at least not yet,” he said. “At the heart of criminal justice reform is the idea that we as prosecutors need to understand the long term consequences of what we do every day. … I must look beyond the case files, understand what happens after they close that file and to view each case not as a person to be prosecuted but as a problem to be solved.”

Major Willie Parker, serving as the representative for Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, also hinted at plans to roll out citations for adults in cases of misdemeanors involving marijuana. Stats provided by HOPE showed that 75 percent of children’s arrests were for misdemeanor marijuana offenses.

On the topic of affordable housing, representatives of HOPE pointed to rising rent and home prices, with little in the way of affordable housing in Tampa’s latest building boom. As wages remain stagnant, they said they aim to establish a trust fund of sorts solely dedicated to the rehabilitation and construction of housing for the working class.

While the County Commissioners in attendance couldn’t promise the full $10 million that HOPE would like to see dedicated to the cause, they all said they shared the organization’s concern and that they will focus on it in 2017.

Kemp also pointed out the issue of Tampa lagging behind other metropolitan areas in median wage, including Detroit, which has a median wage that exceeds Tampa’s by $6,000 annually while the median wage in Atlanta is $11,000 more. That, along with the current public transit standard making vehicle ownership a necessity (and thus boosting the cost of living), are some of the less obvious factors that need to be taken into addressing the housing crisis, she said.

There was little in the way of disagreement, but HOPE and the elected officials present have nine months to carry out their mission of making the county a better place for its low-income and working class residents. A lot of it, of course, relies in part on the political will of the officials’ colleagues, and it can be challenging to strike harmony on economic and transit issues.

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