Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Housing attorneys and legal advocates for low-income renters continue to express unease about changes to the DC Housing Authority’s voucher program, a function of the agency that provides rental assistance to tens of thousands of clients. 

They describe a newly revived effort to more strictly enforce a policy that allows the Authority to terminate families’ rental subsidies if they’re in possession of a transfer voucher but fail to use it within six months. 

The Authority distributes transfer vouchers to some families who specifically request a new accommodation. But in other cases, families who live in properties that have failed multiple housing inspections are also given vouchers that allow them to transfer to a new housing unit. Even in these cases, when receipt of the new voucher is unsolicited, families risk losing their housing altogether if they can’t find a new unit on the private market within six months. 

“We think that policy is likely illegal and in conflict with federal law,” says Beth Harrison, a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Society, and the director of the organization’s Eviction Defense Project. “We’ve been defending tenants who have faced that issue, and it’s a terrible policy.”

Harrison says that Legal Aid met with the former head of DCHA’s voucher program, Ron McCoy—an employee who worked at the agency for nearly two decades and resigned suddenly in March—to talk about “ways the agency could soften the policy and address [our] concerns.” (McCoy still worked at the agency at the time of their meeting.) After speaking with McCoy, Harrison says that Legal Aid was “hopeful” that the agency would consider modifying or rolling back the plan. “Now I have no hope,” she says. “It’s a harsh across-the-board policy that doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.” 

Esther Adetunji, a supervising attorney with Bread for the City, says the argument in favor of the policy change goes something like this: Some families or individuals hold onto a voucher for one, two, or three years without using them. The Housing Authority loses that money, and is unable to obtain additional vouchers, because the funds lay dormant. There are about 40,000 people on the agency’s waiting list for federal housing subsidies, so to get vouchers back online, DCHA needed to incentivize tenants to find new housing more quickly. 

But in practice, Adetunji and Harrison both say that rampant source-of-income discrimination, though illegal in D.C., makes finding new housing units on the private market difficult. Exacerbating the financial and socioeconomic bias against some low-income renters is the lack of appropriately sized housing for families, some of whom need five or even seven bedrooms. 

Adetunji says she has seen clients with adult children who “are leaving the household and saying, ‘to make it easier for you, Mom, I’m going to move to shelter so you can find a place big enough for your younger kids or grandkids.’ It’s breaking up homes and breaking up families.” Other times, Harrison says, prospective landlords turn tenants down for housing because of poor credit history or an eviction record. Adetunji calls navigating the transfer voucher process for these families an “almost impossible situation.”

(Jennifer Berger, a manager and Legal Aid attorney at Legal Counsel for the Elderly, calls the policy “absolutely illogical and inconsistent with any knowledge base that’s been acquired about the affordable housing crisis in the District, and how hard it is to find affordable housing in the District. It should be common knowledge for the Housing Authority.”)

The federal department of Housing and Urban Development requires public housing authorities to give clients at least 60 days to find a new accommodation. In an emailed statement to City Paper, a spokesperson for DCHA says that “very few families” need more than six months to find a new home, and that about 5 percent of the 10,000 vouchers issued since October of 2016 expired after six months. (That’s about 500 families.)

The spokesperson continued, in part: “Washington, DC is one of the highest rental markets in the country and all of our customers are of modest means and many of them have large families. Nonetheless, hundreds of families in the DCHA program successfully relocate every year. […] DCHA helps relocating families navigate the rental market and we often identify and advocate directly with the landlords on behalf of our customers; and DCHA provides ongoing consultation, beyond the 180 days, to help our customers find local schools, grocery stores, pharmacies, medical facilities, etc. After approximately 120 days, DCHA amplifies its efforts with families and provides additional support to those who need additional help.”

While DCHA is obligated to send tenants a notice that they’re at risk of being terminated from the voucher program, Adetunji says that’s just “their narrative.” In practice, Bread for the City sees clients who say they’ve never received notices prior to program termination. Adetunji says that even families who go in person to the Authority’s office on North Capitol Street to request an extension are sometimes told by voucher staff to come back the day their vouchers expire, only to hear, at that point, that it’s too late to extend them.

The Authority’s voucher team has a mediation department where a small group of staff liaise between tenants and their landlords to settle disputes, like a landlord’s recommendation that DCHA terminate their tenant from the voucher program. The mediators also refer DCHA clients to organizations like Legal Counsel for the Elderly, Legal Aid, and Bread for the City, which see clients who have either received notices that they face voucher termination or have already been terminated from the program. (Multiple sources at DCHA tell City Paper they fear that the mediation program is on the chopping block for the agency’s fiscal year 2020 budget, as part of a broader effort to redirect resources to the agency’s public housing budget.)

Berger tells City Paper that LCE alone assists and prevents program termination for about 100 seniors annually. She refers to it as “smart business” for the agency, whose general counsel would otherwise become tied up in landlord and tenant court cases.

Bread for the City’s advocacy director, Aja Taylor, says she worries these programmatic changes are in “service of [DCHA’s] development goals,” rather than an effort to keep families in their homes. “What I worry about is that they are essentially stockpiling vouchers, so they can project-base them and fund other projects.” The decision “feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul. It feels not smart,” she says.

She adds that, for families who do face termination and can’t find affordable housing on the private market, the policy amounts to “feeding people into the homeless services system. It’s not like there’s a plethora of naturally occurring affordable housing they can pick from.”

“In my view, I think it’s lost sight of its actual goal and mission, which is to help people remain and stay housed. It’s looking for an easy way out and being incredibly draconian in the application of regulations, and in some cases making up regs in order to eliminate certain people from programs and reduce people from the waitlist,” Adetunji says. 

Berger questions the need for a change this dramatic. “Just because someone comes into DCHA two years ago doesn’t mean the history of what worked at the Housing Authority should be ignored in favor of changing things drastically,” she says. “They should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Keep what works and tweak what doesn’t.”