Dozens of people wait in a line outside
D.C. residents lined up around the block for a chance to move into public housing on Jan. 6. Photo by Annemarie Cuccia.

D.C.’s public housing agency is set to have a busy 2023. 

Responding to criticism in a stinging U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assessment made public in October, the D.C. Council installed a temporary D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) board to tackle long-standing concerns about the agency’s deteriorating units and decades-old waitlist for public housing. 

But public housing residents, advocates, former board members and council members say a new board is just the first step toward making the mountain of changes HUD called for when it identified 82 deficiencies at DCHA. By HUD mandate, the housing authority has until March 31 to make “meaningful progress” in resolving its shortfalls. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council is set to debate further legislative action in the next two years, possibly going beyond HUD’s recommendations and changing more fundamentally how DCHA functions. And some tenants are calling for more authority to oversee the management and development of their properties. 

“Meeting the demands of the HUD report is the floor, not the ceiling,” said William Jordan, who works with the Park Morton Equity Team on organizing residents at public housing properties. “Resident equity is the bar.” 

A new board to tackle old problems

 

While many of HUD’s criticisms were familiar to public housing residents, the D.C. government took the report as cause to act. Late last year, the council passed a proposal by Mayor Muriel Bowser, removing the authority’s divided board and installing a “Stabilization and Reform Board,” which will govern the agency for two years starting this month. 

There was near-universal agreement that DCHA’s past board was dysfunctional. The 13-member body included seven mayoral appointees, including the board’s chair and a voucher holder; three elected DCHA tenants; and three commissioners selected by the D.C. Council, labor organizations and legal service providers, respectively. The board often approved policies with little debate, giving the appearance it was a rubber stamp. The HUD report only amplified this concern, pointing out that the mayoral appointees often voted en bloc, and could thus decide any vote — a characterization DCHA pushed back against in hearings last November. 

Janet Parker, the former resident commissioner elected by tenants of buildings designated for elderly and disabled housing, felt that she and other resident board members didn’t have a real voice. For instance, a few months ago, Parker said she attempted to propose a resolution about procurement and to begin a conversation about the agency’s strategy for serving seniors. But she was told that, as a board member, she lacked the authority to set an agenda item or propose a resolution. 

According to the organization’s bylaws, commissioners have always been able to introduce resolutions, DCHA Executive Director Brenda Donald said in an interview, but have historically not done so. Regardless, advocates who follow DCHA hope the reform board has the authority needed to pursue necessary changes. 

Councilmembers voted for DCHA’s new governance structure with the hope the board will be more knowledgeable and functional than its predecessor. It has nine voting members, all appointed by the mayor and approved by the council — with the initial members specified in the authorizing legislation and amended from the mayor’s original proposal. Most of the members have expertise in housing, development and related issues, including the director of D.C.’s Interagency Council on Homelessness. The reform board retained only two of the four DCHA residents and voucher holders who served on the past board, removing two of three commissioners who were elected by fellow residents. The president of the City-Wide Resident Advisory Board will sit on the reform board as a non-voting member, as will a representative of the District’s chief financial officer. 

Ousted commissioners worry the reform board will be beholden to the mayor (who must, under D.C. law, appoint over half the board). The new board does not include any of the past members with a reputation for regularly questioning DCHA leadership, which worries Parker. 

“I am a 70-year-old, white-haired old lady. And I am a senior, and I am a vulnerable adult who lives in this housing, and I share the needs and I share the experience of the other residents,” Parker said. 

The reform board will have the same powers as the old board, although the legislation approved by the D.C. Council sets forth specific obligations to oversee the agency’s improvement projects, hold listening sessions with residents, and recommend a permanent board structure by July 2024. 

The new year may also bring change at the top of DCHA. Donald’s contract is up in August and it’s widely assumed she’ll retire, given that Council Chair Phil Mendelson mentioned her possible resignation several times last year. However, Donald declined to answer questions about her retirement, saying that she hopes to ”put the agency in a good place to attract the long-term leadership that I think this city deserves.”

DCHA’s new year’s resolution is to focus on repairs, vacancies

 

The HUD report set DCHA’s first task for 2023 — making substantial progress toward resolving its deficiencies by March 31. According to Donald, DCHA will also focus this year on repairing every occupied unit in its housing stock and getting through the entire 24,000-person waitlist for public housing.

This is a monumental task. As of December, DCHA had 9,000 outstanding work orders to address issues such as mold, broken appliances and missing locks in public housing units. To tackle these issues, Donald said she will dispatch DCHA staff and contractors to every occupied unit in the first half of this year. 

DCHA’s inventory includes about 2,000 vacant units, even as tens of thousands of D.C. residents have been waiting for more than a decade to move into public housing. Just last week, DCHA held the first of several planned mass leasing events to move people from its waitlist into the 600 available units (another 1,400 need repairs). The agency invited 5,000 people to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on Jan. 6, and over 600 showed up. Donald said applicants will be able to move in as soon as the end of the month if they were able to provide all the required information to show they are still eligible. 

However, some of the people who attended the leasing event were less than enthusiastic with how it was carried out. Barbara Jones arrived for her “appointment slot” to find a line that stretched three blocks from the library door. After waiting for three hours, Jones was unsure how much longer she’d be able to stand. Between hip surgery, blood clots and her age, she can barely walk. 

“I don’t know whether to leave. I don’t know what to do. I’ve been waiting for so long,” said Jones, who has been on the housing waitlist for 12 years. “I was here. Tell ‘em I was here, been here, still here.” 

A sign reading "District of Columbia Housing Authority" in front of a white building.

D.C. Housing Authority’s old headquarters. Photo by Will Schick.

Council ponders further DCHA reforms in 2023

 

While HUD gave DCHA a long to-do list, some local politicians and advocates think it doesn’t go far enough. 

Within the next few months, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto plans to reintroduce a version of the DCHA reform bill she initially introduced in December with former At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. The bill officially defines DCHA’s mission as housing extremely low-income residents and outlines the rights of residents in public housing. Last year, several legislators signaled they would consider supporting the bill, including At-large Councilmember Robert White — now head of the reconstituted Housing Committee.

“Given the scope of the challenges DCHA faces, nothing is off the table — including using the Council’s legislative, budget, and oversight power — to improve public housing and our voucher program,” White wrote in a statement to Street Sense Media/The DC Line. He’s hoping to double the amount currently budgeted for DCHA repairs — resulting in a $500 million investment over five years — and to cut wait times for housing vouchers. White said the funding infusion is needed after years of disinvestment.

As initially introduced, Pinto’s bill proposes solutions to many of the issues HUD raised. To address the authority’s dilapidated properties, DCHA would have a designated fund for the repair and maintenance of occupied units. The bill also enhances council oversight and aims to improve DCHA’s management of waitlists for public housing and vouchers by requiring annual contact with people on the list. 

Additionally, the bill responds to concerns the agency is mishandling its voucher program and overpaying landlords who rent to voucher holders. In addition to requiring the agency to conduct a rent reasonableness assessment for every unit a voucher holder leases, the bill would direct DCHA to prevent vouchers from eroding rent stabilization. 

“The Stabilization Board is only a temporary board. Its creation does not address many of the core operational failures we see at the Housing Authority,” Pinto wrote in a statement to Street Sense Media/The DC Line. “The structural and operational reforms I have proposed are all critical to ensuring effective delivery of housing to extremely and very low-income residents.”

The bill envisions yet another proposed governance structure, which would include two housing finance experts, two public housing management experts, one financial compliance expert, three residents, and one seat nominated by legal service providers. The new board could take over from the reform board after two years, Pinto suggested.

The reforms proposed by Pinto are popular among some housing rights advocates. Daniel del Pielago, organizing director with Empower D.C., said the bill’s attempt to refocus the agency on providing housing to low-income residents will counter a long-standing push toward development and privatization of units. Del Pielago is also glad to see the bill would require DCHA to seek input from the City-Wide Resident Advisory Board before implementing redevelopment plans, codifying resident input. 

While Donald agrees generally with the solutions the bill sets forward, she said legislative action is unnecessary because DCHA is in the process of adopting most of those policies. She plans to meet with the new Housing Committee members about reforms that are in the works. 

“I think we’re doing everything, so it’s hard to understand what additional legislative needs there are,” Donald said. “I think it really is that we have to deliver, we have to be accountable to our residents, and we have to be sure that we’re transparent.” 

Residents demand a role in deciding their futures

 

The HUD report and Pinto’s legislation include dozens of fixes that local advocates widely agree will help DCHA function more efficiently. But some public housing residents — who have been raising the alarm about the agency for years — worry these actions fall short of the needed change. 

While Donald pushed back on the idea that DCHA’s mission has shifted from providing low-income housing to privatization, redevelopment is an undeniable priority for some of the increasingly dilapidated properties in the aging DCHA portfolio. The agency uses mixed-income development to deconcentrate public housing, and is converting several properties via a HUD program that lets the agency seek private funding to redevelop public housing properties. 

But current residents sometimes miss out on the benefits brought forward by these redevelopment projects, advocates say. They can be displaced for years, and pressured to sign hard-to-understand agreements, as has been the case with the New Communities Initiative.

Because of this, the Park Morton Equity team and other housing advocates say residents must have a say in any redevelopment. Whenever a property comes up for privatization, DCHA should offer residents a first right of refusal and the ability to submit an equitable redevelopment proposal, similar to residents of privately owned rental buildings under D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, said Jordan, a member of the Park Morton Equity Team. 

“If you’re going to privatize, then the issue is what ownership stake the residents or resident entity will have in that structure,” Jordan said. “The only way any reform is going to work is going to be if residents are full partners with the benefits and responsibilities.” 

One option Jordan offered for addressing this issue is establishing resident management corporations to oversee the budgets and repairs of their properties. At least one DCHA property, Kenilworth, has used this model before.

While these suggestions go beyond widely-discussed DCHA reforms, the agency might be open, Donald said. Officials are also looking into the Washington Interfaith Network’s suggestions for a local model for equitable redevelopment, which would ensure affordable units, decrease displacement, and allow residents to share their priorities for repairs. 

Residents should be at the center of the process, advocates said, because it’s their lives that are most impacted by whether DCHA reform succeeds. 

“We have a beautiful gift here — we have land, we have buildings, we have resources, we actually do have money,” said Parker, former resident commissioner. “And if we’re creative in using it, we could make a lot of lives better.” 


This article was co-published with The DC Line. 

Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.