Janet Parker and her mobility service dog. Photo courtesy of Janet Parker

The D.C. Housing Authority finally has a new resident commissioner — Janet Parker. 

DCHA, the agency that manages public housing and various rental subsidies in the District, has spent the last six months trying to organize elections for the three tenant-reserved seats on its 12-member board of commissioners. The elections had been delayed due to the pandemic, with the current representatives remaining on the board as holdovers. 

The three resident commissioners are supposed to represent the interests of DCHA tenants to their colleagues on the board, which makes administrative rules for the agency, approves contracts, and oversees the quality of service residents receive. The position Parker will occupy specifically represents properties that house seniors and people with disabilities. 

Parker, the sole candidate for the senior/disabled seat, was elected with 93 votes in a preliminary count on Feb. 22 and aims to shake up a board that has been heavily criticized for conflicts of interest and failing to represent the needs of residents. The election results have since been certified. 

The process of filling the other two tenant seats is ongoing. DCHA announced on March 7 that Crystal Nelson and incumbent Kenneth Council are candidates for the at-large seat that Council currently holds. Denise Blackson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 6, is the sole candidate for the other seat, which represents residents of family housing. Prospective candidates had to apply by March 3. 

Parker, a resident of Regency House on Connecticut Avenue NW, has been working for the past five years as an ombudsman for the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, where she advocates for residents living in nursing homes. She is an advocate for independent living and has been trained in critical emergency response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and pandemic and epidemic response by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Northwest Center for Public Health — skills she hopes to bring to managing COVID-19 in public housing. 

When elections were delayed because of the pandemic, the D.C. Council extended the terms of the current commissioners through the end of March or until a successor was seated. That included the senior/disabled commissioner at the time — Antonio Taliaferro. Taliaferro allegedly abused his authority by repeatedly threatening DCHA employees, according to an independent investigation initiated by DCHA. 

DCHA intended to hold the election for all three tenant seats at the same time, but no one filed to run for either the at-large or family seat. The election for the remaining seats will take place on April 7 and 8, with an online candidates forum set for April 1.

DCHA hosted an online candidate forum with Parker on Feb. 18, but no one other than Street Sense and The DC Line attended. The following interview, from that forum, has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why are you running?

The person representing seniors and people with disabilities is there to speak on their behalf. I know how difficult it was for me to find housing to meet my needs. I am a person who is wheelchair-dependent, and I have hearing loss. I have been a tenant for eight years in D.C. Housing. So I am very interested in housing issues because it impacts me as well as the people around me.

Tenants are most impacted, and they need a voice. And decisions should always be made with their voice. And not only that — I think we have to remember what the actual mission of DCHA is. The mission is not to be a big boon for the construction industry. It’s actually to provide affordable and clean and safe housing for residents in D.C. who need it. 

What sorts of things are you looking to address in your role as a commissioner?

I know for a fact that the lack of wheelchair-accessible apartments is a real problem. I’m not just talking about whether or not there is an elevator in a building. I’m talking about whether there are bars in bathrooms, whether the doors can be opened by people like me and held open by people like me. Can I get through them and get my service dog through them before they slam shut on me?=

I am looking at whether the sidewalks outside the buildings are full of potholes. I am looking to see if bus ramps are close by. Do I have to wheel myself by hand for five blocks to get to a bus? These are the kinds of things the board needs to think about. 

When I went door to door, we have many elderly buildings that are in poor repair. They need repair and rejuvenation. And when you try to do that, you have three choices: You can either move everyone out, and renovate the building, or you can tear the building completely down and just try to relocate everybody permanently, or you can try to do construction with people still living in the building and move them around from apartment to apartment. All of these pose problems for the tenants — it’s not that they don’t want to have the plumbing fixed, the walls repaired, the asbestos taken out, the mold removed, the vent painted over so it’s not a danger. They want that happening. But when you start doing this construction and they’re right next to the jackhammer and they have sleep problems already, this is a concern. 

You ran for the board before, yes? 

Yes, I ran in 2015. I lost officially by one vote. I was running against the incumbent, Frank Lancaster, and he had been in the position for 10 years.

Given your experience in advocating for people experiencing homelessness, what role do you think DCHA has in addressing the issue of homelessness?

Well, we need to do a lot about that. I met with several other human rights advocates along with the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development and asked them to make some changes to make it easier for D.C. and other states to get people off the street and get them to housing. 

It is very hard to provide any social services to a person who is homeless if they are not at a fixed address. It is hard to get a social worker to them; it is hard to get them to have adequate food; it is hard to get them adequate medical care; it is hard to deal with a substance or alcohol abuse problem. Housing is critical to providing any kind of services, and people can’t put their lives together without housing, so housing should come first. 

What are the top three things you would like to work to change at DCHA? 

I think we need to work at providing more complete services to people. I know that the new housing director was very interested in the Elderly and Physically Disabled Persons’ Waiver Program, which can provide very good care to people in housing. They can have a caregiver in their home to help them with the tasks of daily living, like getting out to buy groceries or being able to interact with the community. If you can’t get in and out of the bathtub on your own and no one is there to help you, your home ends up not being a nice place for you to live. I think it’s important we get care for those that are financially and medically eligible for that. 

I also have seen some good programs coming into the buildings. Nonprofits are providing food resources. Each ward seems to do a different thing — so sometimes they get complete meals, sometimes they’re just having fresh groceries dropped off — but housing makes that space available for that to happen. 

It’s also really important to understand we are in the middle of a pandemic. In the 16 buildings that I would represent, they are vulnerable elderly adults. And they’re low-income, so they don’t have as much access to medical resources; they may not have as much access to community or family help. It’s really crucial that we be aware of that and provide necessary resources in terms of infection control, personal protective equipment, disinfectants, and hand wipes so that we can keep people safe. 

How do you want DCHA to create more affordable housing? 

You always have more desires to use the money than you have money to use. But I think we need to balance the need to generate income versus our real mission to provide housing, especially for those that need the deep cut to their housing costs, the ones that are living below the poverty line. I know that we have in the past increased housing for the middle class and I know that we need to do that too, but when we have people who really just have no home at all, I think that’s our first critical need.

Is there anything else you want to add? 

I’m one person — I’m only one vote; I can’t change everything just getting on the board. I’m going to be outvoted on every vote unless I can convince others to my way of thinking, but I can make an effort to brief the board on how residents feel, to do investigations to find out how things are happening and what the perception of the issues is and bring those to the attention of the staff and to the director. There are things I can do and things I can’t do, and I will try to do my best. 


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.