Letting Our Housing Crumble: DC Housing Authority Falling Into Disrepair

Yet the DC Council has done little to put the Housing Authority on the right track, and the consequences are dire and are getting worse. Properties sit vacant while families are displaced, kids are growing up in horrific and unhealthy conditions, and tens of thousands of DC residents have been languishing on the Housing Authority’s affordable housing waitlists for decades.

What is the DC Housing Authority?

The DC Housing Authority is in charge of three critical affordable housing programs: public housing (housing owned and operated by the Housing Authority), the Housing Choice Voucher Program (federal vouchers that can be used on the private market), and the Local Rent Supplement Program (local vouchers that can be used on the private market). The waitlists for all of these programs have been closed for nearly nine years, since April 12, 2013.

That bears repeating: the primary agency tasked with providing deeply affordable housing to our neighbors with the most need has been telling DC residents for nearly nine years that they cannot even apply for its programs. What’s worse — even after being closed all this time, there are still almost 39,000 people on these lists waiting for affordable homes.

A History of Scandals, Lack of Investment, and Failed Council Oversight

The DC Housing Authority has a long, troubled history. In the 1990s, a group of applicants hoping to get into public housing sued the Housing Authority, arguing that it was constructively demolishing public housing units by allowing them to fall into disrepair. The court agreed and appointed a receiver to take control of the agency and set things right. By the year 2000, victory was declared. Under receivership, units were repaired, vacancy rates plummeted, and public housing apartments were being regularly inspected.

After receivership, the Housing Authority was restructured as an independent agency. In theory, this means the Mayor does not control the agency the way she does most others. Instead, the Housing Authority is run by a thirteen member Board of Commissioners, and the Board hires the agency’s Executive Director. Structuring the Housing Authority as an independent agency was intended to depoliticize the agency and bring greater accountability. Unfortunately, we have seen the opposite, in part due to the Mayor’s control of the Board and the Council’s lack of oversight.

For decades, public housing has suffered disinvestment. The federal government has underfunded public housing, and the DC Council, until recently and despite having the resources, has not stepped up to fill that gap. Today, over 1,800 public housing units sit vacant while over 24,000 people sit waiting on the public housing waitlist alone. Year after year residents living in public housing show up to the Housing Authority performance oversight hearings to tell the Council and the public about the mold, lead, infestation, water damage, and other serious housing code violations they and their families endure. Meanwhile, thousands of Black families have been displaced from an increasingly unaffordable DC.

All of this is unsurprising when you consider how badly the Board and the agency’s Executive Director have mismanaged the Housing Authority. Yet, the current Council Chair and the DC Council have done little to hold the agency accountable for its scandals, fraud, and mismanagement over the years, including:

The Path Forward

Erin lays out her vision for housing as a right at the Washington Interfaith Network election season action.

The current Council Chair claims that he is a legislator who “fights for” affordable housing. If he has been fighting for the more than two decades he has been in office, then he has lost. The DC Housing Authority is at an inflection point, and stronger leadership is needed to guide this agency to serve DC residents.

As Chairwoman, I would lead and equip the Council to do three things: fund the Housing Authority’s public housing and voucher programs; legislate to prevent the Housing Authority from repeating its failures; and conduct regular and sustained oversight to ensure that the Housing Authority complies with the law and its mandate to provide safe, stable, and secure housing to DC’s low-income residents.

Funding. We must make regular and sustained investments in public housing so residents can lead healthy and dignified lives. The DC Housing Authority has only recently started receiving more local funding, and that funding is not recurring. Sustained funding is necessary so the agency can plan its rehabilitation and redevelopment projects. It also means requiring regular reporting and audits on how that money is being used to improve the lives of DC residents.

We also must fund the Local Rent Supplement Program. If the federal government is not going to give DC federal dollars to pull families off the 38,000+ person waitlist, the DC Council has to step up. We cannot continue to have waitlists for our most critical housing programs closed for nearly a decade. It is simply unacceptable.

Legislation. As Council Chairwoman, I will lead the DC Council in legislative reform of the DC Housing Authority. First, the Council must pass legislation to stop the displacement of public housing residents. Year after year, we have seen public housing residents displaced from their homes that then sit vacant for years (and even decades) while DC families are left wondering if they will ever return. This happened at Temple Courts, Barry Farm, and Park Morton to name a few, and now residents fear that history is doomed to repeat itself at Greenleaf Gardens. The Council can no longer sit back and watch this happen. Instead, it must require the Housing Authority to prioritize build-first models of redevelopment and guarantee every public housing resident a robust and unequivocal right to return to redeveloped properties within a reasonable timeframe.

Second, the Council must legislate to ensure that the Housing Authority operates as a truly independent agency and that its Board of Commissioners conducts business transparently, ethically, and with meaningful community input. This means passing legislation to break up the Mayor’s majority on the Board. It also means requiring the Board to have a code of ethics it abides by and enforces, as well as rules of procedure for how it will conduct business and collect community input before making decisions.

Oversight. Finally, I will equip the DC Council to conduct vigorous and constant oversight to make sure that the Housing Authority is meeting its critically important mission to safely and stably house DC’s lowest income residents. I know that good government is an ongoing discipline. That is why I’ve created a detailed DC Council Accountability Plan. It lays out a number of tangible steps I would take as Council Chairwoman to better achieve robust, dedicated oversight, including enhancing and increasing use of the DC Auditor’s Office and the DC Council Office of Racial Equity, as well as nonpartisan, institutionalized support staff and resources so the Council can conduct sustained oversight across offices and build and retain institutional knowledge.

DC residents deserve safe, stable, and affordable housing and DC Council leadership that will fight every day for housing as a right. I’m ready to put my values into practice and support residents across DC.

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Candidate for DC Council Chairwoman

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Erin Palmer

Erin Palmer

Candidate for DC Council Chairwoman

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