ERC Testifies at DC Housing Authority Performance Oversight Hearing

By Susie McClannahan
February 23, 2022

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 February 7, 2022.

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 District of Columbia 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] A 2019 Urban Institute report found that more than 60,000 households in the District were at risk of displacement due to increasing housing costs.[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] DCHA has an outsized role to play in combatting the affordable housing crisis and ongoing housing segregation. We have concerns about agency performance in relation to the following areas in particular:

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. Yet DCHA has appeared to take the opposite approach, seeking to offload even more public housing units through an amendment proposed on December 12, 2021 for a total of a possible 3,465 units to be privatized.[10] In order to comply with its fair housing obligations and prevent the displacement of District families, DCHA must stop privatizing units and instead focus its efforts on improving its public housing stock.

DCHA Must Overhaul Its Reasonable Accommodations Process to Effectively Serve People with Disabilities

DCHA must also do more to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to housing under its programs. The substandard condition of public housing is a particularly pernicious problem for people with disabilities. In 2021, 255 households were on a waiting list for accessible housing units, with the oldest request dating back to 2010.[11] Thus, the lack of accessible units in DCHA’s public housing stock is forcing people with disabilities to wait years living in a unit that does not meet their accessibility needs until a more accessible unit may become available for a transfer.

The ERC has also heard reports from both community advocates and DCHA program participants that the reasonable accommodation process at DCHA is opaque and difficult to navigate. For example, a DCHA public housing resident went more than a month waiting for a basic repair to his unit last year. After he contacted the ERC and the ERC re-submitted his reasonable accommodation request, the repair was completed the same day. Yet the ERC has been stonewalled in other efforts to assist DCHA program participants with disabilities. In one case, the ERC assisted a voucher holder with submitting a reasonable accommodation request for an increase in her voucher size in order to accommodate the storage of necessary medical equipment in her home. The ERC had to send multiple inquiries regarding the request before DCHA approved it, only for the agency to stop responding to emails altogether, meaning the client was never issued a new voucher. Because the client was never awarded a new voucher, she has been unable to store the medical equipment she needs, resulting in a significant decline to her health.

DCHA has obligations to equitably serve and house participants with disabilities under the Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, American with Disabilities Act, and DC Human Rights Act. It is unconscionable that people with disabilities languish, sometimes indefinitely, in an unnecessarily complicated and confusing reasonable accommodations process. DCHA must do a sweeping review of its reasonable accommodation review process to ensure that program participants with disabilities are able to receive the accommodations they need for their safety and well-being in a timely manner.

DCHA’s Increased Payment Standards are Critical to Address Residential Segregation and the Affordable Housing Crisis, but DCHA Must Do More to Combat Source of Income Discrimination

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 overstated. 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 affordable 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.

Yet the ERC has also heard concerning reports of housing providers in the District charging voucher holders higher rents than market based renters for identical units, which would likely constitute illegal source of income discrimination. In 2020 a DC voucher holder and housing counseling agency sued a property management company for allegedly charging the voucher holder a higher rent rate than renters with other sources of income.[12] This practice, if left unaddressed, could lead to inflated rental prices, further reducing affordable housing in the city. Furthermore, the ERC has anecdotally heard troubling reports that some housing providers may target voucher holders for inflated rental payments for substandard units. Many voucher holders, especially families seeking larger size units, experience significant difficulty finding homes due to rampant source of income discrimination, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by less than scrupulous landlords. As the agency tasked with inspecting and approving units for rent to voucher holders, DCHA must lead the way in combatting this particular form of source of income discrimination. Specifically, it should prioritize invest resources in investigating these reports and act aggressively to end these practices where identified—ranging from refusing to work with housing providers that engage in this form of discrimination to pursuing them for enforcement action.

DCHA Must Be More Communicative with Program Participants

DCHA must improve communication and its relationship with program participants. While program participants have expressed difficulties navigating the agency for years, the ERC has received a significant spike in calls during the pandemic from DCHA program participants who express frustration and confusion with the agency. Common complaints from callers have included an inability to reach DCHA despite repeated contact attempts and a fear of losing out on a housing opportunity due to delays by the agency in completing the lease-up process. This poor customer service is not only time consuming and emotionally discouraging, but can also cause devastating and long-lasting negative outcomes for participants, up to and including a loss of housing.

While 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, the ERC is highly concerned about other DCHA policies and practices that are creating fair housing barriers to program participants. 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. DCHA must also overhaul its reasonable accommodation process in order to equitable serve people with disabilities. Finally, DCHA must make a concerted effort to improve its customer service to program participants so that they are able to fully benefit from the agency’s programs.

References:

[1] Richardson, Jason, et al. Gentrification and Displacement 2020. National Community Reinvestment Coalition, June 2020, https://ncrc.org/gentrification20/.

[2] Austin Turn, Margery, et al. Meeting the Washington Region’s Future Housing Needs. Urban Institute, 2019, p.36, https://www.urban.org/research/publication/meeting-washington-regions-future-housing-needs/view/full_report.

[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-very-scarce.

[10] DC Housing Authority, Amendment No. 1 To Moving To Work Annual Plan FY2022, 12 Dec. 2021, https://webserver1.dchousing.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/DCHA-FY2022-Plan_Proposed-Amendment-1_v2.pdf.

[11] Schick, Will. “With too few ADA-compliant units in DCHA’s aging portfolio, seniors and people with disabilities languish on 255-household waitlist.” DC Line, 26 Aug. 2022, thedcline.org/2021/08/26/with-too-few-ada-compliant-units-in-dchas-aging-portfolio-seniors-and-people-with-disabilities-languish-on-255-household-waitlist/

[12]Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Housing Counseling Services and Prospective Tenant File Lawsuit Against Bozzuto, Chapman Development, and 2228 MLK LLC for Unlawful Discrimination. 22 Jan. 2020, https://www.washlaw.org/housing-counseling-services-and-prospective-tenant-file-lawsuit-against-bozzuto-chapman-development-and-2228-mlk-llc-for-unlawful-discrimination/

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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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