ERC Testifies at 2023 DC Housing Authority Performance Oversight Hearing

By Susie McClannahan
March 2, 2022

The DC Housing Authority (DCHA) is tasked with providing affordable housing to low-income families in the District and administers programs like public housing and the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 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, 2022.

Full transcript of the ERC’s testimony:

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

Testimony Submitted via Email to housing@dccouncil.us

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).

Put simply, DCHA is an agency in crisis and its reputation is in shambles. This reality compromises its ability to serve District residents eligible for its programs—in many instances the same District residents who are most vulnerable to displacement due to rising housing costs. The District is experiencing a dire affordable housing crisis that is steeped in systemic inequity. As the cost of housing has skyrocketed, it has become much more difficult for low-income households to afford living in the District. Low-income Black DC residents are facing the worst consequences of this housing crisis, and over 90% of the District’s housing voucher holders and public housing residents identify as Black.[1] Therefore, the District’s compliance with Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirements under the Fair Housing Act depends on its ability to improve DCHA performance.

DCHA clients and local advocates, including the ERC, have been ringing the alarm about a multitude of dire problems at the agency for years. These concerns were reinforced by HUD’s Fall 2022 report about DCHA. We appreciate the recent interest from DC councilmembers to provide more meaningful oversight of DCHA in response to that report; however, we are concerned that efforts so far have been too focused on improving the agency’s reputation in the short term rather than addressing the root causes of its underperformance. To truly address that DCHA is meeting its charge, councilmembers and others responsible for oversight of the agency must develop an understanding of both how it came to have such stark problems and the broad-based, long-term overhaul that is desperately needed to result in meaningful change moving forward.

DC’s Affordable Housing Crisis Can’t be Fully Addressed Until DCHA Commits to Major, Long-Term Changes

As the administrator of the District’s public housing and housing voucher programs, DCHA has an outsized role to play in combatting the affordable housing crisis, chipping away at ongoing housing segregation, and ensuring that the District is meeting its obligations to affirmatively further fair housing. As part of reform efforts, we encourage Councilmembers to meaningfully collaborate with stakeholders, including advocates and DCHA program participants, who have speaking out about agency failures for years and who are in the best position to identify the broad-based and long-term solutions the agency needs to adopt.

Various stakeholders will likely testify about a number of concerns regarding DCHA. In our testimony, the ERC encourages DCHA to do the following:  

  1. Take action to combat source of income discrimination, including reimplementing rent reasonableness assessments and taking enforcement action against discriminatory housing providers;
  2. Prioritize the rehabilitation of substandard public housing units instead of privatizing buildings;
  3. Overhaul the agency’s reasonable accommodations process to effectively serve people with disabilities; and
  4. Improve communication with program participants.

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.[2] 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.

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. As such, the ERC was gravely concerned last summer when DCHA proposed decreasing its payment standards, and we appreciate that the agency ultimately decided not to do so.

At the same time, rampant source of income discrimination continues to pose significant problems in DC. The ERC has heard concerning reports of District housing providers charging voucher holders higher rents than market-based renters for identical units, a practice which would likely constitute illegal source of income discrimination under District law. In fact, in 2020, a DC voucher holder and housing counseling agency sued a property management company for allegedly charging a voucher holder a higher rent rate than renters with other sources of income.[3] This practice, if left unaddressed, could lead to inflated rental prices, further reducing affordable housing in the city. Furthermore, some housing providers in the District appear to be exploiting voucher holders by setting rents at the payment standard so that they can collect the DCHA’s maximum rent amount for units that are frequently substandard and would not collect such a high rent from a tenant without a subsidy. [4] 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 do more to combat this particular form of source of income discrimination. Specifically, DCHA should immediately reinstitute conducting rent reasonable assessments for all units to ensure that voucher holders are being charged a fair rent price based on the unit’s location, condition, and comparable rents in the building and neighborhood. DCHA is required by HUD to conduct rent reasonableness assessments of units being rented to Housing Choice Voucher Program participants, but the agency has not done so for years, having stopped the practice potentially as far back as 2009.[5] DCHA should also prioritize investing resources in investigating reports of voucher recipients being overcharged rent 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.[6]

DCHA Must Rehabilitate Public Housing and Not Privative Buildings

Public housing serves as another pathway towards long-term housing stability for many low-income renters. Yet the 2022 HUD report found that “DCHA’s [public housing] occupancy rate is 76.44%, which is the lowest PH occupancy rate of any large PHA in the country.”[7] Many of DCHA’s properties are in abysmal condition due to years of neglect from a lack of funding.[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. The DC Policy Center estimates that only 5% of the rental apartment units in the city have three or more bedrooms.[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.[10] 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, planning to offload up to 3,399 of its 8,299 public housing units in FY2023.[11] 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 rehabilitating and maintaining 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. In 2021, 255 households were on a waiting list for accessible housing units, with the oldest request dating back to 2010.[12] In one particularly tragic example, a wheelchair user was still waiting for DCHA to implement her transfer to a wheelchair accessible unit when she passed away five years after DCHA approved her transfer request.[13] The “ongoing, persistent, and undue delay in the implementation of approved reasonable accommodations” has become so “egregious” and pervasive that the OAG sued DCHA last year in an effort to address the agency’s systemic failure to adequately accommodate program participants with disabilities.[14]

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 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.

Conclusion

While the ERC applauds DCHA’s continued use of increased payment standards as a critical tool to promote fair housing choice among voucher holders and contribute to neighborhood desegregation, we are highly concerned about other DCHA policies and practices that are creating fair housing barriers to program participants. The ERC urges DCHA to reinstate rent reasonableness assessments immediately and take necessary enforcement action to combat source of income discrimination. We also encourage 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 equitably serve people with disabilities. Finally, DCHA must make a concerted effort to improve its customer service so that program participants are able to fully benefit from the agency’s programs.

References:

[1] Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Draft Metropolitan Regional Fair Housing Plan – District of Columbia. Jan. 2023. mwcog.org/assets/1/6/District_of_Columbia_Clean_web.pdf.

[2] DCHA Testimony, DC Council Public Hearing, 20 Feb. 2020, dc.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=&clip_id=5384&caption_id=11875496.

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

[4] Thompson, Steve and Dalton Bennett. “D.C. overpays landlords millions to house the city’s poorest.” Washington Post. 16 Feb. 2023. www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2023/02/15/dc-housing-authority-overpays-landlords/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] However, DCHA efforts to stamp out this practice should focus on holding landlords accountable not individual voucher holders who may fall victim to it.

[7] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. District of Columbia Housing Authority (DC001) Assessment. Oct. 2022. oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2022-10/DCReview_Final%209302022%20%281%29.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. 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.

[9] DC Policy Center. Appraising the District’s rentals – Landscape of Rental Housing. 1 Apr. 2020. dcpolicycenter.org/publications/appraising-the-districts-rentals-chapter-ii/.

[10] McCabe, Brian, “DC’s New Communities Initiative, Explained,” 10 Feb 2021, ggwash.org/view/80371/what-is-dcs-new-communities-initiative-anyway.

[11] DC Housing Authority, FY2023 Moving To Work Plan, 14 Feb. 2023, https://www.dchousing.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/DCHA-FY2023-Plan_Approved-FINAL_Proposed-Significant-Amendment-Redline_v…-1.pdf.

[12] 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/.

[13] DC v. DCHA complaint filed June 16, 2020, p. 2, oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2022-06/DCHA%20Final%20%28Final%29%20Complaint%20Package.pdf.

[14] DC v. DCHA complaint filed June 16, 2020, p. 3-4.

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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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