A sign for DCHA in front of the white building that houses the department
The sign for the DCHA headquarters in Northeast D.C. Photo by Will Schick

Marlena Childs has had enough of conditions at the Kelly Miller complex, a public housing property in LeDroit Park managed by the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA). She’s tired of the bedbugs, the near-constant ringing of fire alarms, the periodic sounds of gunshots that send her careening to the floor. She’s had enough of mice coming in and out of her home — she had caught 83 by June, midway through her third summer in the apartment. To make matters worse, Childs says her building’s boiler releases toxic-smelling fumes, and the stairways throughout the complex don’t have nearly enough railings. She has a disability that makes it hard for her to walk down stairs.

Other residents at DCHA properties expressed similar concerns when they joined Childs in testifying about the conditions of their homes at a July public hearing of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing and Executive Administration. Many talked at length about how difficult it is to reach administrators for help with both routine and sudden maintenance needs. For people with disabilities like Childs, navigating DCHA’s complex bureaucracy can be doubly difficult — all the more so because of a lack of accessible housing, according to accounts shared by disability rights advocates and residents of DCHA’s properties. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) notes that, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, entities that receive funding from the federal government may not discriminate against people who have disabilities and must provide them with equal access to programs or activities. In 1988, the Fair Housing Act expanded those protections to include all housing providers regardless of source of funding. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, broadened protections for people with disabilities into areas such as employment and education. The landmark law also laid out updated standards for accessibility within government properties. 

There are 255 households living in DCHA properties who are waiting for ADA-compliant housing, according to the agency.

A staircase entrance for one of the buildings at Kentucky Courts, a housing facility managed by DCHA. Photo by Will Schick

For over a month, Street Sense Media and The DC Line attempted to secure an interview with someone at the housing authority to discuss the issue of accessibility in its public housing portfolio. Despite repeated requests by phone and email, DCHA did not agree to an interview for this story, stating at times that the agency’s interim director was the sole person authorized to speak on the record to the media, and at other times that scheduling conflicts prevented anyone from its ADA Section 504 office from doing an interview.

The agency agreed, however, to correspond over email and selectively responded to questions. It did not answer questions related to the number of ADA-accessible units in its current housing inventory, or about how much of the $50 million allocated for housing repairs in D.C.’s fiscal year 2022 capital budget will go toward adding more ADA-accessible units.

Housing and disability rights advocates have long faulted DCHA for a lack of responsiveness to requests for information as well as to residents’ needs. The failings, they say, make it even more difficult for people with disabilities and seniors to live in public housing as well as to navigate the system itself.

People with disabilities have a right to ‘reasonable accommodations’

Approximately 1 out of 4 people in the United States has a disability, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Abby Volin, an attorney adviser with the D.C. Office of Disability Rights, said it’s not only important to understand that people with disabilities encompass a large range of people; it’s also critical that they themselves know their rights and how to assert them.

Under ADA and other federal laws such as the Fair Housing Act, people with disabilities are supposed to be afforded what are known as “reasonable accommodations.”

The term “reasonable accommodations” is not specific to housing and can encompass any form of assistance that is meant to help ensure that a person with a disability can participate in an activity or program just like anyone else. This includes a person’s ability to access a public space or their job and place of work.

“The point of the ADA and reasonable accommodations is not to bump somebody higher in the line. It’s to help them get in the line to make sure that they have equal access to the programs, activities, [and] services — just as anyone else does — and to prevent discrimination,” Volin said.

In housing, the term generally refers to the modifications made to a property that make life easier for the person living there. For instance, a reasonable accommodation for a person with a mobility-related disability could include the installation of grab bars next to a toilet or the conversion of a shower into a roll-in shower. 

While these accommodations do not eliminate the need for homes that meet the full set of federally established standards for accessibility, they may make homes more habitable for people who have disabilities. An ADA-accessible home for someone who uses a wheelchair, for instance, would also have lower cabinets and countertop surfaces. 

In data shared with Street Sense Media and The DC Line, DCHA said the oldest pending request it has for an ADA-accessible unit dates to March 31, 2010. HUD guidelines require public housing authorities to supply a sufficient number of accessible units to provide equal access to dwellings for all people seeking housing assistance. In the absence of fully accessible units, housing authorities like DCHA are charged with making reasonable accommodations as needed.   

But, as the agency pointed out in an emailed statement, “DCHA’s aging portfolio does not include a sufficient number of readily available units to respond to the full demand for approved reasonable accommodations.” 

Photo of a sign stuck in the ground behind the bars of a fence. It says

Potomac Gardens received a score of 74 out of 100 on a HUD inspection conducted in October 2017. Photo by Will Schick

That lack of accessible housing has led, in some cases, to people waiting years upon years for resolution of their requests to move into suitable public housing or relocate to a new unit or building.

DCHA’s “Moving to Work” annual planning document for FY 2022 shows a combined total of 72,136 households waiting for housing on lists that have been closed for years. In a June budget oversight hearing, DCHA reported having 1,800 vacant properties, amounting to about 20% of its portfolio. The agency’s interim director, Brenda Donald, said 614 of these units were “not rentable” due to poor conditions. Donald also said 357 of the 1,800 vacant units were being left vacant intentionally so they would be available to accommodate families who need to move while DCHA rehabilitates other properties.  

Those already in public housing may request ADA-accessible units. Some people who have been offered the option to live in properties that are ADA-accessible have preferred to stay in their already modified units, but remain on the waiting list in case a more suitable unit becomes available. In an email, the housing authority said 22 of its 255 pending requests for ADA-accessible units are from residents living in such units.

A lawsuit filed in 2013 by the nonprofit Deaf-REACH alleged the agency repeatedly violated provisions of the Fair Housing Act and the ADA by failing to provide hearing-impaired participants in its program with access to an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter when accessing services. The case was settled in 2015, and DCHA agreed to require all of its employees to undergo disability rights training. Another lawsuit filed against the city in 2013 cited similar complaints that people with disabilities, including public housing residents, had not received legally required assistance. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and the city’s appeal was denied.

DCHA-managed properties rank among the lowest in the country

 

Even as DCHA has modified the homes of some families who have members with disabilities, the agency suffers from an even broader problem: Public housing properties managed by DCHA rank lower than those of almost every other state and territory in the U.S., garnering an overall average inspection score of 68 out of 100, according to the latest data. Nearly one-third of public housing properties in D.C. score below 59, which designates them as “troubled,” according to HUD. The lowest score in D.C. is Hopkins Apartments, a property located at 1000 K St. SE, which scored 26 out of 100 during an inspection in 2019. Property conditions determine how often the buildings are supposed to be inspected. While troubled properties are supposed to be reinspected every year, properties scoring over 90 are due for reinspection only every three years.

DCHA
Infographic by Will Schick

The HUD data shows that nearly all physical inspections of public properties across the country stopped in March of 2020. Inspections resumed nationally this past June, according to HUD. But that data is not yet available, and the last inspections recorded for the District are from November and December of 2019.

The poor and sometimes dilapidated condition of public housing in the nation’s capital is a problem familiar to D.C. officials, who have long talked about the need to make improvements. DCHA has identified about $405 million worth of public housing repairs needed over the next six years. In the capital budget recently approved for FY 2022, the agency received $50 million for repairs.

States and Territories with Lowest Average HUD Inspection Scores
Infographic by Will Schick

At a June public hearing of the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration, At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds said it costs nearly $100,000 to bring a single vacant unit in disrepair back online. 

Still, other members of the D.C. Council have expressed frustration with what they describe as DCHA’s lack of transparency and cited a need for greater oversight of the agency’s spending.

In recent council budget deliberations, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman proposed reinstituting a rule that would require board approval for spending on projects in excess of $250,000. The measure, she argued, was needed to ensure accountability over what she described as the agency’s hard-to-track spending. Silverman’s proposal prevailed on an 8-5 vote, although Council Chairman Phil Mendelson warned the change might slow down the pace of needed repairs.

States and Territories with Highest HUD Inspection Scores
Infographic by Will Schick

Inside the struggles of seniors who try to navigate housing in DC

 

Gwendolyn Washington, an attorney with the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, said in an interview that seniors and people who have disabilities have been waiting years for accessible public housing units. Meanwhile, she added, seniors and other residents of DCHA properties have also contended with unsafe living conditions, including “severe mold.”  

“I’ve heard concerns about the lack of maintenance or repairs … for a few years now. But it sounds like more and more units are in a more deteriorated state. And we’ve got to come up with the resources to improve this,” Bonds said during a June budget oversight hearing of the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration, which she chairs.

“This issue about ADA units is a very important issue that we have to look at,” Bonds said in response to Washington’s testimony about the waiting list for ADA-compliant units. Bonds then asked about the possibility of identifying ADA-compliant units on the open market as a way to meet the demand.

Washington said this option might work if DCHA offered vouchers for privately owned ADA-compliant units to those who are waiting for them.

Washington, who says she has a handful of clients waiting for an accessible home, described the lack of accessible public housing as a serious problem within the District and called for more DCHA funding to go toward rehabilitating the 1,000-plus vacant units in the agency’s portfolio.

Sibley Plaza received a score of 79 out of 100 on its most recent HUD inspection in December 2017. Photo by Will Schick

The scarcity of public housing, Washington argues, mirrors the District’s overall shortfall of affordable housing, an issue that disproportionately impacts seniors and people with disabilities.

Seniors account for one-third of all extremely low-income renters in D.C., according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Many are on fixed incomes and rely on Social Security payments to make ends meet, Washington noted.

“We’ve seen seniors who are spending as much as 90% of their income on rent. And so [for them], it becomes a choice between medication and food, or rent,” she said, adding that the soaring cost of housing has far exceeded many retirees’ original expectations as well as any cost-of-living adjustments they have received.

“These seniors may … never have imagined when they were working in 1979 that their rent would come to a place where it is now,” she said.   

Washington added that many seniors living in buildings subject to rent control are not even aware of the D.C. program that allows them to restrict their rent increases to 2% a year after they turn 62. 

Silence can be discouraging

 

Tiffani Johnson, a Ward 4 advisory neighborhood commissioner and rights and advocacy specialist for the D.C. Department of Disability Services, echoed Washington’s concerns. She says many of her clients who have disabilities face obstacles when trying to navigate the public housing system, even with the help of legal professionals.

“I have a client now that I’m assisting, she’s gotten nowhere with DCHA,” Johnson explained. “I’ve got a [law degree] and her daughter is a paralegal, and all we get is crickets.”

Johnson says that the problem is compounded by the severe lack of ADA-compliant public housing available to people who need it.

“I mean we’re still consistently seeing applications [for ADA units] being submitted, but no one’s moving anywhere,” Johnson said.

Shopping carts parked outside a group buildings at Potomac Gardens, a public housing facility located near the Potomac Ave Metro station in Ward 6. Photo by Will Schick

Based on her 15 years as a disability rights advocate in D.C., Johnson said that DCHA has always been a notoriously difficult agency to work with, taking a long time to respond to any requests for assistance.

“You have to, you know, consistently, email, email, email, call, call, call before you get a response to even one question. So, I mean it makes it very, very frustrating and confusing,” Johnson said.

That lack of responsiveness places some seniors and people with disabilities in dire straits, Johnson added.

“People get tired, you know? … So they just give up and they end up sleeping in an encampment or doing couch rotations with their friends and neighbors,” she said. “And that’s no way to live.” 

Ronny Goodman, a 64-year-old D.C. resident who uses a stroller to walk and is on a fixed income, agreed with Johnson’s assessment.

Though Goodman is not seeking a spot in public housing, he says he’s long struggled with looking for stable housing for himself. He’s spent the past few months looking for an apartment to rent. But the process has been harder than he imagined. 

“I can’t come up with the cash to pay for the application,” he explained.

Goodman said the application fee for the last apartment he looked at cost $92. And at another place he visited, it was $50. Either way, it’s a big chunk of his monthly income, which he estimates at about $740. 

He says he spends some nights with friends who live in public housing and other nights at nearby hotels. Goodman said that it’s not always easy for people his age to bring up issues or problems they’re having. 

For one, “you got old people who don’t complain because they don’t know,” he said. And secondly, “they ain’t got anybody to do nothing for them,” he said.


This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.