Tensions at this Cleveland Park apartment complex reveal a lack of coordination among District agencies that support low-income residents
In recent months, one Connecticut Avenue apartment building has become a focal point for criticism of the city’s subsidized housing programs, with problems reaching the attention of the police and D.C. Council and spawning debates over how best to provide housing for D.C.’s most vulnerable residents.
Mounting complaints among building residents about mismanagement and the effect on their quality of life have recently brought the case of the Sedgwick Gardens building under public scrutiny and highlighted a legal loophole that has subtly weakened the city’s rent-control protections. A D.C. law enacted in February offers hope for reform, yet the legislation remained inert and unfunded until recently. Meanwhile, city officials say they’ll provide expanded social services to deal with situations they say are unique to Sedgwick Gardens.
But the issues raised are applicable far beyond the immediate neighborhoods of Cleveland Park and Forest Hills, with experiences at Sedgwick Garden providing a prism into how the city’s housing programs can lead to what advocates for low-income tenants see as perverse effects that reduce the availability of affordable housing.
The case of Sedgwick Gardens
Over the past two years, as use of city-issued housing vouchers has increased at the Sedgwick Gardens apartments at 3726 Connecticut Ave. NW, so have reports of problems ranging in severity from thefts of clothing from the laundry room to a resident being found dead in their apartment when a case worker visited four weeks after their death. In one case, SWAT team officers engaged in extensive negotiations with a tenant whom Sedgwick Gardens resident Diane McWhorter described as repeatedly violent and whom she heard threaten to kill each officer one at a time. Because the city protects the privacy of recipients of housing subsidies, it’s unknown whether any of these incidents involved tenants with vouchers.
Residents of Sedgwick Gardens have publicly expressed their concerns several times, including at a May 6 D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development community meeting and a February oversight hearing of the council’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization. But the issue has come up at other meetings as well.
At DHCD’s meeting, held to identify fair housing violations in Ward 3, the majority of attendees were from Sedgwick Gardens and similar apartment buildings in the area, expressing anger with a lack of oversight at Sedgwick. Carren Kaston, president of the Sedgwick Gardens Tenant Association, cited a “stampede” of residents — voucher holders as well as other residents — out of the building as a result of the crisis there.
“Conventional” residents of the rent-controlled art deco building began noticing a high number of housing voucher recipients in spring 2017, according to testimony from both Kaston and McWhorter at the February hearing. This time frame coincides with an increase in the cap of how much the D.C. Housing Authority is willing to pay for a voucher recipient’s rent in order to give “DCHA customers even more choices of where they can afford to live,” according to the agency’s website. By 2019 nearly half of the building’s 140 units were occupied by voucher holders, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh said at a community meeting in March.
Street view of Sedgwick Gardens. Photo by Eric Falquero
Officials at the various agencies involved have not been forthcoming when asked how so many subsidy recipients ended up in the building, according to the tenant representatives who spoke at the February hearing. The programs that put them there, housing experts say, allow tenants to decide where they want to live, though those choices are often hindered by subsidies that don’t cover market rent in the District or a given landlord’s resistance to “taking a chance” on renters who rely on assistance.
At the February hearing, McWhorter called Sedgwick Gardens “a case study in how not to manage the program.”
Rather than blaming the voucher holders personally, the tenant leaders say they take issue with the city for allowing conditions to reach what they consider a point of crisis.
“Make no mistake: All kinds of residents, not only those paying full rent, are affected by the disruptions, the constant police presence including an overnight SWAT team occupation of the building, public drug overdoses, attempted home invasions, fecal defacement of the property, domestic and other violence,” McWhorter said in Feb. 22 testimony before the D.C. Council. She added that police visits to the building rose from 12 in 2014 to 121 in 2018, although according to information the Metropolitan Police Department provided to The Washington Post, only five police visits determined a crime had occurred.
Kaston suggested that the city should limit the number of voucher holders that end up in any single building. “The cap is urgently needed to keep all residents — voucher and non-voucher — safe,” she said.
“[Sedgwick Gardens is] a case study in how not to manage the program.”
—Diane McWhorter, Sedgwick Gardens Resident
McWhorter and Kaston questioned why residents in need did not receive adequate supportive services, whether they had been responsibly screened for criminal backgrounds and if the D.C. Housing Authority placed them specifically at Sedgwick Gardens. Anita Bonds, an at-large council member and the committee chair running the February oversight hearing, put these same questions to DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett and his staff.
Pre-hearing written testimony from DCHA said the agency complies with the D.C. Fair Criminal Record Screening for Housing Act, which considers if and when a conviction occurred, whether a person is in compliance with parole/probation requirements, and whether the nature of a prior offense suggests a potential impact on the safety of other residents.
McWhorter had raised the question because “ATF officers entered the building with assault rifles to arrest a tenant who, as it turned out, had been under federal indictment since shortly before moving in last fall for trafficking heroin and other drugs.”
At the hearing, Garrett said the Housing Authority cannot consider a customer’s medical background, including mental health needs, for fear that doing so could discriminate against voucher recipients and foster stereotypes. He said the director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program had met with community stakeholders from the complex in response to the complaints and determined that some residents do in fact need more assistance, which would be provided by DCHA’s sister agencies, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Behavioral Health. “The responsibility of managing behavior and managing lease violations is the sole responsibility of the landlord,” testified then HCVP Director Roy McCoy, who left the agency in April.
Representatives from Sedgwick Gardens’ management, DARO Apartments, could not be reached for comment.
This spring, DHS assigned two social workers to help residents access social services five days a week, including some evenings, according to Jay Melder, who served until April as chief of staff to D.C.’s deputy mayor for health and human services.
“DHS is collecting data around their interactions with residents, types of concerns, resolution status of those concerns, and referral to service agencies,” Melder wrote in a March email. “This data will help inform DHS’s decisions moving forward.”
Source of income discrimination
According to some housing advocates, discrimination elsewhere is a factor that can lead to concentrations of housing vouchers in places like Sedgwick Gardens. It is illegal for landlords to discriminate against potential renters based on 20 traits protected under the D.C. Human Rights Act, including “source of income (SOI),” such as a housing voucher or other cash benefit. But the law is hard to systematically enforce and subsidy recipients tend to be concentrated in areas where landlords will accept them.
“It’s unlawful resistance, but that resistance is why 70 percent of the folks using rental assistance in the city are in wards 7 and 8 or concentrated in places like Sedgwick Gardens,” said Brook Hill, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
A study by the Urban Institute from 2018 found that 15 percent of landlords in D.C. refused to accept housing choice vouchers, and 14 percent either placed conditions on accepting vouchers or said that they did not know their policy on accepting vouchers.
Kate Scott, deputy director of the Equal Rights Center, said that renters are usually too busy looking for somewhere to use their vouchers to report discriminatory landlords. HCVP recipients have a limited time to use their voucher, or it expires.
“We hear from voucher holders fairly frequently that they are about to lose their voucher because of the amount of discrimination they face in the market,” Scott said. “It’s actually pretty difficult for people to enforce their rights.”
D.C. is taking some steps to crack down on source of income discrimination. In November 2018, Attorney General Karl Racine announced a lawsuit against a pair of real estate and property management companies for SOI discrimination. At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman introduced a bill in March that would increase the penalty for SOI discrimination.
“We’re in an affordable housing crisis,” Silverman wrote in a statement to The D.C. Line and Street Sense. “Every suitable housing option in our city needs to be available to qualified applicants searching for their next home — whether they hold a housing voucher or not.”
DCHA has also taken a softer approach to helping voucher holders get housing, including outreach to landlords to persuade them of the benefits of cooperating with the voucher program. According to Hill, the city is reluctant to harm its relationship with landlords by bringing legal charges based on SOI discrimination.
“[DCHA and DHS have] said things like they’re working to build relationships with landlords and they’re taking the approach of using the carrot rather than the stick,” Hill said. “That doesn’t get you anywhere with a landlord who’s decided they’re not going to take voucher holders. There’s no relationship to preserve.”
Given the rate of SOI discrimination in the District, DCHA and DHS are pressed to house subsidy recipients anywhere they can, Hill said. “Generally voucher holders get concentrated in specific places because source of income discrimination is so pervasive, and if city agencies took a hard line on unlawful discrimination, that is less likely to happen,” he said, speculating that the concentration at Sedgwick Gardens likely arose due to a relationship the city had established with the property manager.
Sedgwick Gardens entrance. Photo by Eric Falquero
The issues brought to light at Sedgwick have also invited discussion about the role of race. In a legal complaint against several management companies, the Equal Rights Center argued that since 92 percent of voucher holders in D.C. are Black, SOI discrimination is essentially the same as racial discrimination.
Hill of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee said he believes at least some of the rise in police calls to Sedgwick is attributable to race and a discomfort with living with people who have been homeless. “It’s another example of people calling the police on Black people just for ordinary, everyday activities,” he said.
Tenant leaders at Sedgwick say it’s the city’s failure to provide supportive services when necessary — as well as appropriate oversight over people placed through the voucher program — that leads other residents to see a police call as their only option.
Other housing advocates have also taken issue with what they perceive to be a demonization of voucher holders in the discussions and media coverage surrounding Sedgwick Gardens. Margaret Emery, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Council for the Elderly, and Kierstin Quinsland, director of permanent supportive housing for the nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen, wrote letters to the editor of The Washington Post criticizing the newspaper’s coverage of Sedgwick Gardens.
At the February oversight hearing, Reginald Black, a homeless D.C. native and Street Sense vendor, expressed similar concerns regarding attitudes toward voucher holders living at Sedgwick and in other communities. “Gentrifiers are young, often, and White. And those are the ones I see complaining about crime, arbitrarily tying it back to voucher holders,” he said. “I don’t think they recognize they are part of a community.”
The rent-control loophole
Amid the focus on administration of the city’s housing vouchers, the Sedgwick Gardens case has also helped highlight some broader policy issues involving rent control.
D.C.’s subsidized housing programs include the rapid rehousing program, managed by the D.C. Department of Human Services; and the Local Rent Subsidy Program and federal Housing Choice voucher program (formerly known as Section 8), both managed by the D.C. Housing Authority. Each of these has its own regulations but, in general, such programs are used to subsidize rent for low-income people.
Recipients are supposed to be treated like any other potential tenant, with the ability to choose where they would like to live by using the benefit to bridge the gap between their income and the advertised cost of rent. To encourage landlords to accept the vouchers, rent-controlled units leased to housing voucher holders do not have to adhere to the rent limitations set under the city’s rent control law, with the city paying an amount closer to market rate.
But many, even some of the program’s strongest proponents, have pointed to a glaring loophole in this incentive: When voucher holders move out of a formerly rent-controlled unit, the apartment doesn’t return to the previous rate. Instead, landlords are allowed to rent the unit to anyone at the higher rate last used to incentivize accepting a voucher recipient. This can lead to a much higher jump in rent than is typically allowed when a unit becomes vacant, which is usually capped at 10 percent above what was charged to the former tenant and is never more than 30 percent more. Critics note this gives landlords an incentive to move voucher holders into and out of an apartment to essentially exempt the unit from rent control.
Sidewalk view of Sedgwick Gardens. Photo by Eric Falquero
At Sedgwick Gardens, McWhorter said this loophole has caused significant turnover in the building and warned that if buildings like Sedgwick are susceptible to such mismanagement, the District is likely to see the departure of its middle-class tax base and end up exacerbating a reputation as a city hospitable only to the rich and the poor. It’s a loophole that has surfaced in various D.C. buildings in recent years, including the Brandywine Apartments in Forest Hills.
“Our concern with the voucher program is that [it] pays above-market rents … and provides an incentive to landlords to fill their buildings with voucher residents,” David Luria, president of the Brandywine Apartments tenants association, wrote in an email. “This has led to poor screening of some of the residents, resulting in security and safety issues in our building.”
Luria said crime at the Brandywine Apartments has gone up 170 percent from 2018 to 2019, with a police visit coming every two to three days.
Beth Harrison, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, said she knew of a rent-controlled apartment building in Southeast where only five of the 12 units were occupied, with the building’s new owner freely acknowledging that he planned to bring in tenants with housing vouchers to make the property more profitable.
“We’re in an affordable housing crisis. Every suitable housing option in our city needs to be available to qualified applicants searching for their next home — whether they hold a housing voucher or not.”
—Elissa Silverman, Council member
Under this program — intended to move people out of shelters in the short term and into permanent housing — residents get a subsidy covering 60 percent of their rent for several months to a year. But critics say this framework runs the danger of setting people up in housing they can’t afford in the long run, with problems frequently arising when the subsidy expires and the tenant becomes responsible for the entire rent. A 2017 report compiled by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless found that, on average, the total income of a family that receives a rapid rehousing subsidy covers only 40 percent of the market rent for the apartment they end up renting.
As with the housing choice vouchers, this program allows rent-control exemptions for landlords, giving them the same ability to convert their units to market-rate prices. For tenants in these cases, the loss of their subsidy is exacerbated by the fact they must also pay market-rate rent when their rapid rehousing voucher runs out.
Testifying to the council in December 2017, Harrison pointed to a case where an $800 unit became exempt from rent-control limits because of a rapid rehousing voucher, with the rent rising to $1,200. When the subsidy expired after a year, the tenant “struggled to pay the rent, now locked in at a significantly higher rate than it would have been without the subsidy exemption,” Harrison said.
Harrison added that she heard many stories of landlords evicting voucher holders when their subsidies expired, effectively converting their units to market-rate. Intent in cases like these was difficult to prove, she said, so this practice was able to continue. Forty-five percent of families that have been in rapid rehousing for at least one year have been sued by their landlord for eviction, according to a 2017 report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Scott Bruton, vice president of housing policy at the Center for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, and Harrison brought the rent-control loophole to the attention of Bonds, as chair of the council’s housing committee, in 2017. That November, Bonds and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced the Rental Housing Affordability Re-establishment Act to address the problem.
Under the bill, when a voucher holder leaves a rent-controlled unit, that unit’s rent would revert to the rate it had been before the voucher holder moved in plus any annual increases accrued in the meantime. “This new approach gives housing providers a much greater incentive to continue to rent to tenants with subsidies, as only when they rent to subsidy holders would they be able to continue to charge the higher, market-rate rents associated with the subsidy,” the committee report on the bill reads.
The council voted unanimously in favor of the bill in October 2018, and it’s been law since Feb. 22, but it could not go into effect until the city allocated funding. The lowered rental income will reduce the city’s revenue from property tax and business income tax collections. Estimating that the law would affect about 600 units per year, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer predicted an estimated loss of $10,000 in year one and closer to $231,000 in total by the fourth year.
With the budget approved Tuesday, the council found $9,000 in fiscal year 2020 and $600,000 over the four-year plan to close the rent control loophole as of Oct. 1. But residents at Sedgwick Gardens and other rent-controlled buildings, and subsidy recipients throughout the District, are left with a system being criticized as prioritizing landlords over tenants.
“We acknowledge that you have been charged with addressing an enormous social problem that you didn’t create, and which is a symptom of an inequitable system that fosters the redistribution of wealth into the hands of those who already have it,” McWhorter testified to the council in February. “Unfortunately, the voucher program seems to be very consistent with that trend.”
This story was co-published with TheDCLine.org