ERC Testifies at DC Housing Authority Performance Oversight Hearing

By Susie McClannahan
March 16, 2021

The DC Housing Authority is tasked with providing affordable housing to low-income families in the District, through the management of public housing and administration of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, for example. The ERC frequently serves voucher holders, and appreciates the opportunity to testify to DC Council regarding the agency’s performance. The testimony was submitted to the Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization on March 1,  2021.

Full transcript of the ERC’s testimony:

Equal Rights Center’s Testimony Regarding the Performance of the DC Housing Authority

The Equal Rights Center (ERC) is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington, D.C. and nationwide. For many years, the ERC has received funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Fair Housing Initiatives Program to conduct intakes with individuals in the District who believe they may have experienced housing discrimination, investigate individual claims and systemic forms of housing discrimination, pursue enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and DC Human Rights Act as needed, and conduct education and outreach about fair housing protections and requirements. The ERC appreciates the opportunity to submit written testimony for the performance oversight hearing of the DC Housing Authority (DCHA).

DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis Requires Decisive Action from DC Government

The District is experiencing a dire affordable housing crisis that is steeped in systemic inequity. DC is among the most gentrified cities nationwide.[1] In 2015, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that rents have grown sharply and that the number of low-cost rental units in the city has been cut in half since 2002.[2] Remaining affordable units are clustered in areas the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) designates as “racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty” and even those units are threatened as gentrification continues to creep east.

Low-income Black DC residents are facing the worst consequences of this housing crisis. The median white family has a staggering 81 times as much wealth as the median Black family in the city.[3] As the cost of housing has skyrocketed, it has become much more difficult for many low income Black families to afford living in the District, and they have been displaced from the city at rates unheard of elsewhere in the country.

One of the few paths to housing stability for low-income renters is through a housing voucher. There are currently over 10,000 Housing Choice Voucher holders in use in DC. Over 90 percent of these voucher holders are Black,[4] despite Black residents constituting only 48 percent of the city’s population.[5] These demographics are inextricably linked to a long history of housing policies that fostered wealth building for white families in neighborhoods rich with opportunity, and that pushed Black families into exploitative, substandard rental housing in neighborhoods starved of resources.

For years, the Equal Rights Center has been urging District leaders to take decisive actions to address these inequities. DC’s 2019 draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice found that hypersegregation in many of the neighborhoods East of the Anacostia River is “as severe as South African apartheid.”[6] By adopting neighborhood based payment standards for use in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, DCHA has heeded this call to action in a critical, concrete way.

DCHA Must Rehabilitate Public Housing and Not Privative Buildings

Another pathway towards housing stability for low-income renters is public housing. Unfortunately, many of DCHA’s properties are in abysmal condition due to years of neglect from a lack of funding.[7] About a third of units owned by DCHA require urgent intervention to remediate substandard housing conditions and all buildings require major repairs.[8] DC must fully fund critical repairs for DCHA properties. Furthermore, in the context of ongoing gentrification sweeping the District, such repairs should be conducted in a manner that avoids privatizing public housing, with a priority placed on preserving the long-term affordability of such units to extremely low-income residents.

Public housing is especially critical for low-income families due to the dearth of larger sized rental units in the private market. A 2017 report found that since 1990 there have only been 507 three-bedroom or larger units built in “institutional quality” complexes throughout the entire city.[9] Redevelopments of subsidized housing in the last few years have frequently failed to replace family-sized units that are demolished with the same size or larger units, even in developments where there has been a commitment of one-to-one replacement of units. The private housing market’s dismal track record in building family sized units highlights the importance of maintaining and rehabilitating public housing so that families with children, who are explicitly protected under the Fair Housing Act, are not displaced from our community.

DCHA’s Increased Payment Standards are Critical to Address Residential Segregation and the Affordable Housing Crisis

In 2017, DCHA raised the payment standards for voucher holders in some neighborhoods to up to 175% of Fair Market Rent (FMR). The importance of the increased payment standards for desegregating the city and ensuring low-income renters have access to affordable housing cannot be understated. If DCHA utilized the HUD payment standards that are determined by zip codes alone, voucher holders would only be able to afford housing in about 20% of the District’s neighborhoods, mostly in Wards 7 and 8. Because DCHA has instituted and displayed an ongoing commitment to neighborhood based payment standards, voucher holders are able to afford rents in most District neighborhoods. In DC, taking a less limiting approach to payment standards allows the District to comply with its fair housing obligation under the Fair Housing Act to address racial segregation.

It is critical that the DC government do everything in its power to address entrenched residential segregation. Due to the housing crisis in the District and the impact of decades of inequitable housing policies, DCHA is an agency that plays an outsized role in determining the city’s response to critical issues of affordability and segregation. DCHA’s decision to set its payment standards based on the actual cost of rents in neighborhoods throughout the city is one of the most meaningful steps any District agency has taken to address segregation. DCHA’s payment standards are critical to ongoing efforts to desegregate DC neighborhoods and ensure that voucher holders can meaningfully choose where they live.

The ERC applauds DCHA’s use of increased payment standards as a critical tool to promote fair housing choice among voucher holders and contribute to neighborhood desegregation. However, the ERC encourages DCHA to rehabilitate public housing communities in need of urgent repairs instead of privatizing the units, which could result in a further loss of affordable housing in the city. Furthermore, it is imperative that DCHA receive the funding necessary to make the public housing repairs.

References:

[1] Richardson, Jason, et al. Gentrification and Displacement 2020. National Community Reinvestment Coalition, June 2020, https://ncrc.org/gentrification20/.
[2] Rivers, Wes. Going, Going, Gone: DC’s Vanishing Affordable Housing. DC Fiscal Policy Institute, 2015, www.dcfpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Going-Going-Gone-Rent-Burden-Final-3-6-15format-v2-3-10-15.pdf.
[3] Kijakazi, Kilolo, et al. The Color of Wealth in the Nation’s Capital, Urban Institute, Oct. 2016, www.urban.org/research/publication/color-wealth-nations-capital.
[4] US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Picture of Subsidized Households,” www.huduser.gov/portal/datasets/assthsg.html.
[5] United States Census Bureau, “American Fact Finder,” factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk.
[6] DC Department of Housing and Community Development, et al. Draft For Public Comment – Analysis of Impediments To Fair Housing Choice Washington, D.C., 27 Sept. 2019, p. 315, dhcd.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dhcd/publication/attachments/D.C. Draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 9.27.2019 (1).pdf.
[7] DC Department of Housing and Community Development, et al. Draft For Public Comment – Analysis of Impediments To Fair Housing Choice Washington, D.C., 27 Sept. 2019, p. 228,
dhcd.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dhcd/publication/attachments/D.C. Draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 9.27.2019 (1).pdf.
[8] DC Department of Housing and Community Development, et al. Draft For Public Comment – Analysis of Impediments To Fair Housing Choice Washington, D.C., 27 Sept. 2019, p. 182, dhcd.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dhcd/publication/attachments/D.C. Draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 9.27.2019 (1).pdf.
[9] Whitehead, David. “This Map Shows That in DC, Family-Sized Rental Homes Are Very Scarce.” Greater Greater Washington, 1 Mar. 2017, ggwash.org/view/62190/this-map-shows-that-in-dc-family-sized-rental-homes-are-veryscarce.

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The Equal Rights Center (ERC) — a national non-profit organization — is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington DC and nationwide. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org. 

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