U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said she’s using the power of her office to direct resources toward constituents who need them most.
BridgeDetroit caught up with Tlaib a week after she was sworn in for a third term representing Southeast Michigan in the U.S. House. The Detroit native and progressive firebrand was reelected in November to the newly-drawn 12th District, which includes neighborhoods on the city’s west side alongside communities like Livonia, Dearborn, Inkster and Southfield.
Tlaib beat five other Democrats in 2018 to become the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress. Six years later, she easily shrugged off a handful of challengers in her own party and then secured 70% of the general election vote. She took her oath office wearing a traditional Palestinian thobe.
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The congresswoman spoke with BridgeDetroit about her priorities for the next four years and how she’s partnering with policy advocates to improve housing, public transportation, health care and water affordability in Detroit.
The following transcript was edited for length and clarity. The interview took place on Jan. 20, 2023.
A lot has changed in this country since you were first elected in 2018. As you enter your third term in Congress, what’s different about your approach to the work?
One of the eye-opening moments is realizing how important it is to have a federal administration that you can actually work with. With a number of the budgets we passed in both terms as well as the large transformative Inflation Reduction Act, the implementation really does matter. Even just around the $1.5 billion we got for water shutoffs, trying to get the Health and Human Services Department to make sure support for reconnection fees was included.
For me, it’s not just about getting the bills passed and getting the funding and community projects for my district, it’s about making sure it actually gets implemented on the ground in a way that’s equitable and changes people’s lives for the better.
I can now pick up the phone and say ‘hey, there’s all these climate action grants available for frontline communities that can go to environmental justice groups. Can someone from the Biden administration meet with the Environmental Working Group and talk to them about how they can access these dollars?’
I’m going to work closely with the Biden administration in this term. We had a lot of bills that passed, but implementation is right now.
There’s been a long-running conversation about Area Median Income (AMI) calculations used for affordable housing projects. It just doesn’t represent the population in Detroit. When we get taxpayer-subsidized development projects that talk about how units will be affordable, many of them are not. What can be done?
My colleague Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-New York, has been pushing this issue. When I got to Congress, it was the No. 1 issue my housing justice work group brought to my attention. Rep. Clark and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, reduced the Affordable Housing Area Median Income Fairness Act last year; they’re going to do it again.
This is a multi-pronged approach to address some of the core challenges that led to the severe lack of affordable housing. What we’re experiencing in Detroit is what many folks in Brooklyn are experiencing with soaring rent prices and severe lack of affordable housing.
They are trying to deal with the fact there is chronic poverty around big boundaries they use for AMI and use a more localized approach. I co-sponsored (legislation) both terms. I think it’s a good step. The AMI formula just does not work. It’s not resulting in real affordable housing for families in communities like Detroit.
You’ve been vocal on water affordability. Detroit’s new Lifeline Plan is reliant on funding from the state or federal government to make it sustainable long-term. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown is advocating for more federal investment, is that possible?
Absolutely. But, I do believe that Gary Brown and (Mayor Mike) Duggan’s administration, as they launch these amazing press conferences and they talk about this being an affordable plan, what I hear from my residents is it’s a rationing plan that is not applicable to the hardest-hit communities.
These are folks that have been working on this issue for decades. I’m going to listen to those who are saying they haven’t been included in the conversation about what real affordability looks like. There’s so many layers of challenges. It’s hard when I hear that the door has been closed and there’s no real conversations happening. Meeting with the residents and saying ‘here’s the plan’ is not real dialogue.
If Monica Lewis-Patrick (an environmental justice advocate with We The People Detroit) or other water warriors cannot explain this plan to me, then we have a problem. When I hear 60,000 people are possibly going to get their water shutoff, I know we still need conversations. These are folks who have been on the ground doing the work for a long, long time. They’re gathering the research, doing the work and then are shut down when it comes down to putting a plan together.
I will tell you, the first thing I did was pick up the phone and ask folks in the Biden administration if they were engaged in this conversation. I told them the community has not been engaged on this. It should be a requirement before we start engaging in trying to support funding.
What can the federal government do to support a larger regional transit system in Michigan?
I want the federal government to not settle for less. I was in the Legislature when former Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was here. We had private conversations about the QLine. To spend that kind of significant investment that only helps a handful of people and is not real transit, to me, that’s problematic.
The federal government can start pushing and saying we need a regional transit system that works for every community. My first community conversation in Livonia was with a father who has a child with a disability. He said ‘I’m getting older, she can’t live without transportation.’
The only way we can push cities and communities to be part of a big equitable transit system, is to tie money and resources to that. I remember when the Department of Transportation made an investment in the QLine. People saw that and say ‘we got something.’ That is not something.
We’ve been able to leverage federal partnerships to say these are things that are required before we move forward with investing. It has to be a true transit system that is accessible to all and is a real regional system, not one that only helps a few. Unless it’s regional, I don’t think we’ll be able to do right by our residents.
The Department of Transportation is not going to take us seriously until we start moving toward a regional transit system. They obviously know we don’t have a true, equitable regional system.
The federal government reached its debt ceiling this month. How could this impact people, especially those who rely on government programs to survive? As this situation stands now, what is the concern?
The thing is, this is our debt. We’ve already spent this. These programs – things like Social Security and Medicare, you name it – are at threat if we don’t raise the debt ceiling.
Our government is supposed to be about people. Where did we double the debt? It was the tax plan that the previous president did for the rich and wealthy. Those who are complaining are the same people who voted for that. When it comes to actually providing Social Security and health care for my residents or trying to help people during the pandemic, that’s when they come running and say ‘we can’t do this.’
You can’t say ‘here’s a credit card, run up the bill,’ and then not want to pay the bill in the end. They never talked about it when they passed the previous president’s tax changes that helped the wealthy. The billionaires benefitted from that and no one brought up the debt ceiling.
When it comes to clean air, clean water, ending child poverty, addressing affordable housing in our country, which is a huge crisis, that’s when all of a sudden they say ‘let’s cut.’
Some are worried we’ll have to cut defense spending. I’m like, ‘yeah maybe we should have a conversation about auditing the Pentagon before you start talking about taking healthcare away from our residents.’ I’m ready to push back on what I consider to be misleading rhetoric.
I really believe protecting Medicare and Social Security is bipartisan. A lot of folks believe these are really important safety net programs. They want to believe their taxes are going to benefits that are going to take care of them when they’re in retirement.
What’s the best way people can access constituent services or reach out to your office if they need help?
We have three neighborhood service centers now. We just opened our Southfield location, and we have one at Inkster City Hall. We had to move our Detroit location because we’re mostly northwest Detroit now, so we moved to the College Park neighborhood.
The main number to call is (313) 463-6220. They can always email us at email@example.com.
Some of the things we’ve been able to do – working with hospitals to get people’s medical debt wiped out because they had financial assistance they didn’t know how to apply for, to calling the management company for senior housing and saying ‘you’re not complying with the requirements for folks with a disability’ – is use the power of our office to get things moving for our residents. We push back on those who try to use loopholes that don’t allow our residents to thrive.