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

Two months after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a stinging assessment of the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA), the public outcry as well as the potential penalties are already leading to change — though some say it can’t come fast enough, and others are doubtful that meaningful progress will come at all.

DCHA officials and local lawmakers discussed the future of the agency at a hearing on Nov. 30, one day after the housing authority officially responded to the HUD audit listing 82 deficiencies of the agency. DCHA has the highest public housing vacancy rate in the nation, fails to keep units in livable condition and mismanages both the Housing Choice Voucher Program and lengthy waitlists for housing, HUD found. DCHA Executive Director Brenda Donald — who took over in mid-2021 amid widespread dissatisfaction with the prior management — insisted the audit was “not a wake-up call” with reform plans already underway, but lawmakers and advocates are demanding the agency substantially improve after years of promised improvements have fallen short. 

At the D.C. Council’s hearing, DCHA officials largely agreed with HUD’s diagnosis of the agency’s shortfalls. But Donald also told the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration that the housing authority is addressing the problems, with plans to repair uninhabitable apartments, move residents into vacant units and update the housing waitlist. If achieved, these actions could rectify longtime concerns of DCHA tenants and voucher holders. However, some councilmembers are skeptical that the housing authority can shake off entrenched problems without internal reform. 

“If this was not a wake-up call, then why hasn’t there been progress in eight years?” asked At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman.

If DCHA does not make swift improvements, HUD could take temporary control of the agency through a process called federal receivership. The housing authority has until March 31 to correct most of the issues HUD raised in the report. 

“The question is, Does [DCHA’s response] answer the 82 demerits listed in the assessment?” asked At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the housing committee. “Does the agency’s response move the important services of the authority forward?” 

Bonds, who has been criticized for what some see as lackluster oversight of DCHA, did not say whether the agency’s response delivered the “decisive and meaningful overhaul” necessary to fully address the HUD assessment. 

Five councilmembers and DCHA officials in a virtual meeting.

Councilmembers questioned DCHA leadership at a hearing on Nov. 30. Screenshot.

Operationally, DCHA has experienced multiple challenges in recent months, including high-profile resignations and internal audits that found illegal contracting. While Donald tackles her proposed reforms with a team of consultants and contractors — including some on loan from other District government agencies — both Mayor Muriel Bowser and councilmembers are considering structural changes in the agency’s governance. 

The council delayed Tuesday’s scheduled vote on a bill that would dissolve DCHA’s Board of Commissioners and replace it with a smaller, temporary board of mayoral appointees to oversee reform and bring stability. Four current commissioners are strongly opposed to the proposal, which would both shrink the board and remove seats held by residents and mayoral critics. D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson said he’ll bring the bill to a vote Dec. 20.

Most public housing vacancies in the nation  

 

DCHA oversees about 8,000 units of public housing, intended to help low-income residents afford to live in the District. But the HUD audit found that 1,600 of those units were vacant as of June. The occupancy rate has since dropped below 74%, despite Donald’s pledge earlier this year to raise it. 

Meanwhile, 22,000 people sit on the housing authority’s public housing waitlist, many of whom were already homeless when they applied years ago. This summer, D.C.’s attorney general sued DCHA on behalf of another 255 households who have waited years for housing that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“The failure to house residents in available housing units is a direct cause of displacement and homelessness,” Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto said at the hearing. 

The agency currently has about 600 units that are ready for tenants to move into and another 1,400 that need repairs, according to testimony at the hearing. Since June, 66 new residents have moved in. There’s no concrete timeline for filling the rest of the units, according to Nona Eath, DCHA’s senior vice president of property management operations, but the agency will be holding several one-day mass lease events in 2023 to match prospective residents with units. 

Units not in ‘decent, safe, and sanitary condition’ 

 

Residents have long lambasted the conditions of DCHA’s public housing units, complaining of mold, holes in walls, dysfunctional appliances and doors without locks. A prolonged buildup of maintenance requests for the 6,000 units DCHA manages culminated in more than 10,000 outstanding work orders this spring. 

HUD found leaky boiler rooms, extensive mold and mildew, and deteriorating infrastructure. DCHA does not inspect units each year or check that repairs are completed by contractors, counter to HUD requirements, and has so many work orders that employees have little time for routine and preventative maintenance. 

DCHA has thus far focused on fixing the most serious problems, such as those involving roofs and heating and cooling systems, Donald said. Earlier this year, Donald launched a “Summer Blitz” to clear out outstanding work orders. While DCHA has closed 14,000 work orders from the past several years, another 9,000 remain. 

Starting in January, Donald told the council, DCHA staff and contractors borrowed from the Department of General Services will inspect every occupied unit and address any immediate repairs that are needed. The work is expected to take 16 weeks.

A housing waitlist of thousands 

 

Low-income residents of the District are supposed to be able to turn to DCHA’s housing waitlist for help finding a place they can afford. But the 36,000-person waitlist, which covers both public housing and voucher programs, has been closed to new applicants since 2013. Some of those on the list have been waiting for a housing subsidy for more than 15 years, including people who were experiencing homelessness when they joined the list.

While DCHA is at the mercy of federal and local funding for more vouchers to pull people off the list, HUD faulted the agency for failing to house people on the waitlist in vacant public housing units. The federal agency also questioned how DCHA updates and manages the list. 

In April, DCHA launched a campaign to ask people on both the voucher and public housing waitlists to let the authority know if they still needed housing. While the campaign only reached about 2,500 people, the agency is also comparing the waitlist with public databases to take people who have died or are known to have left D.C. off the list. The agency will attempt to contact everyone on the list by March 2023, Donald said. 

If someone does not respond to outreach or rejects two unit offers, they are marked as “inactive,” Eath said, but can reclaim their place on the list by reaching out to DCHA. Advocates have previously expressed concern about DCHA’s efforts to “purge” the waitlist of people who do not respond, since many people’s contact information is outdated.

Disagreements on rent reasonableness

 

In addition to the public housing it operates, DCHA manages about 19,000 housing vouchers. The housing authority is responsible for setting the value of each voucher through a complicated process: The agency sets a maximum voucher rent for the whole city, and then establishes maximum rents for each of the city’s 52 neighborhoods. Under HUD’s rent-reasonableness process, housing authorities are then supposed to review each individual rental contract with a landlord to ensure the housing authority is not paying more than what a unit is worth. This process theoretically prevents landlords from overcharging voucher holders based on maximum rents determined by more expensive rental accommodations in nearby buildings. 

HUD found DCHA failed to complete rent-reasonableness assessments on units rented to voucher holders. 

But DCHA’s written response cites a prior agreement with HUD to use an alternative rent-reasonableness policy. Instead of checking the value of each unit against comparable units, as HUD’s usual process dictates, DCHA checks the value of each unit against the maximum neighborhood rent. Over the summer, DCHA Board of Commissioners member Bill Slover argued this policy leads to inflated rents, as some landlords charge the highest rent possible to maximize their profits. 

Only one legislator, At-large Councilmember Robert White, delved into this issue at the hearing. Donald said the agency is reconsidering its rent-setting process and will have an update in January. 

The housing authority has until March 31 to make progress on all the issues outlined in the HUD report. During the hearing, councilmembers were skeptical that DCHA’s plans would lead to meaningful progress in the agency that has repeatedly promised to improve but failed to implement promised reforms. 

“What will be the difference this time?” White asked.


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.