Alina keeps going to the hospital.
The 10-year-old resident of Greenleaf Gardens has a health diagnosis her lawyer can hardly pronounce: allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. (City Paper changed her name to protect her identity.) It’s an allergy to mold—an allergy so severe that a recent episode, in October of 2018, sent her into respiratory failure at Children’s National Medical Center. Her doctors wrote, in a letter obtained by City Paper, that her living conditions put her at risk of readmission and, potentially, of death.
Across D.C., in Ward 1’s LeDroit Apartments, 59-year-old Andrew Glover feels drained. He’s been this way for months—“constant fatigue,” he says, “just tired all the time.” He lost his appetite and sleeps all day. Glover’s doctor told him last week that his symptoms are the result of elevated blood lead levels.
The factor both Alina and Glover have in common? They live in the District’s public housing, in buildings that the DC Housing Authority has identified as containing some of the most significant health and safety hazards in D.C.
Months after the DC Housing Authority went public with details about the extent to which its public housing stock has deteriorated, and years after its residents say they first began to complain, families continue to cope with the physical consequences of living in units that even the Authority’s chief acknowledges are in “deplorable” condition—and they’re doing so with no end in sight.
“This is a case in point: If housing conditions are creating a host of problems, including severe medical problems for young children, what are these families to do?” asks Alina’s pro bono lawyer, Stacy Ruegilin, an attorney with the white shoe firm Shearman & Sterling LLP.
Ruegilin tells City Paper that the family submitted a petition for reasonable accommodation transfer, a protection enshrined in the Fair Housing Act that ensures tenants with disabilities have an equal opportunity to safe housing. DCHA approved the transfer, responding “fairly quickly,” she says, and “acknowledg[ing] the severity” of Alina’s case.
“This was on Feb. 1,” Ruegilin says. “And in the weeks since, despite multiple attempts to contact them at several offices, they have refused to provide insight or visibility into the process and won’t tell the family whether or when a transfer will be available. They don’t know whether it’ll be this week, month, year. On paper they have this approval, acknowledging this problem, but they’re living in limbo. [Meanwhile] her doctors are saying, you have to get your daughter [out].”
Ruegilin adds: “They have stressed this to me, that her living condition is exacerbating her health issue.” A spokesperson for Ruegilin’s firm tells City Paper that the unit DCHA offered Alina’s family is “located in an even older and considerably more decrepit housing project.” Ruegilin will accompany the family on a visit to the site on Friday.
In response to City Paper’s questions about Alina and Glover, a DCHA spokesperson sent an emailed statement, saying in part: “Concerns about the physical and environmental conditions at many DCHA properties are genuine and pressing; particularly the older properties. At each community meeting, residents ask questions about environmental issues like vermin and dust.”
The spokesperson continued: “Director [Tyrone] Garrett has made clear that the homes are in such disrepair that any further delay could affect the health and safety of residents who live there. More than 5,000 citizens, including 1,483 children and 937 elderly, live in these homes. We encourage anyone who is concerned about their health to immediately contact their medical provider. By law, medical providers are required to follow certain protocols that include informing government agencies, like DCHA.” The spokesperson did not respond to a question asking whether DCHA is aware of any other tenants testing positive for elevated blood lead levels.
Greenleaf Gardens is a 211-unit apartment complex on N Street SW in Ward 6, and is notorious among legal service providers and public housing residents for hosting some of the city’s most repulsive housing conditions. Last summer, Maggie Donahue, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, recounted for City Paper the story of a client with such a severe cockroach infestation that the pests had eaten through the back of her kitchen cabinets, causing them to collapse; maintenance workers merely nailed the cabinets back on top of a blanket of cockroaches. Last month, Valerie Schneider, an attorney with Howard University Law School’s Fair Housing Clinic, told City Paper that clients living in Greenleaf have also reported sewage leaking through their walls.
And a lead hazard assessment of Glover’s building, conducted by an independent contractor between June 21 and July 11 of last year, found “deteriorated lead-based paint” and “elevated concentrations of lead in dusts,” including in tenants’ apartments.
In a phone call with City Paper last week, Glover—who also manages asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes—says that recent blood tests showed blood lead levels of five micrograms per deciliter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers that amount the threshold for an “elevated” blood lead level, and it is associated with decreased renal function, “adverse cardiovascular and kidney effects,” and cognitive dysfunction.
City Paper reported in early February that DC Housing Authority leadership has identified 14 buildings that are in the most critical condition. Among these properties, which altogether represent about 3,300 units of public housing, are Greenleaf and LeDroit. By the DC Housing Authority’s own count, 36 percent of residents who live in the 124-unit LeDroit Apartments are seniors; 40 percent have a disability. And one-quarter of the residents in Greenleaf are children, while 25 percent live with a disability.
DCHA has asked the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for an additional 2,500 housing vouchers to help rehome families it says are living in some of the worst conditions, but it has not received them. In late February, Garrett announced that the Authority aims to present a portfolio “repositioning plan” to the public within 60 days, which will include an outline for “how the agency will address at least 2,400 housing units, over the next 24 months.” The Authority has beefed up staff in recent months as it prepares to release the plan.
That plan will not rely on “selling off properties, but rather, unlocking private investments to provide housing assistance to our existing residents,” Garrett said in a statement at the time. “Full dependence on federal funding is no longer an option and we have to find ways to bring other resources to the table.”
On Wednesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser released her proposed fiscal year 2020 budget. It includes an increase of $1.47 million for rent subsidies distributed by the Housing Authority and no additional funds for capital improvements. DCHA has said it needs at least $330 million in one fiscal year to make immediate health and safety repairs.
Felicia Ross, Alina’s mother, says that her daughter has lived most of her life in public housing—first at Potomac Gardens, and then Greenleaf. But her current unit isn’t any better than the old one.
Ross and her attorney say the apartment is infested with mold, mildew, rats, cockroaches, and mice, which the family sees “on a daily basis.” Walk too hard on the staircase, and you might punch a hole through it. There’s “white mold, a whole lot of it” under the kitchen cabinets. There have been close to two dozen pipe leaks since the family moved in. There is “feces water” that seeps into her unit from the apartment next door. In the last week, she has caught three mice. “And there’s still more in there,” Ross says. “I see the droppings everywhere. It’s embarrassing to have company and mice run across your feet.”
The conditions, she says, “start telling on themselves.”
Ross’ daughter, meanwhile, regularly takes anywhere from five to eight antifungal medications and steroids a day. She has several different inhalers. Her mother has learned to pack a bag for the hospital because she knows she’ll be there for up to five days, and has spent thousands of dollars on air humidifiers and purifiers. She says she is wary of letting Alina play downstairs, where the bulk of the mold grows, because it exacerbates her asthma. She is mostly confined to her bedroom.
“She just doesn’t have an understanding of why she can’t play tag. She rides her bike, she gets out of breath. But she tries,” her mom says. Alina’s health “has always been a downhill battle. It’ll get better, and then it’ll turn for the worse. Since she was diagnosed with her asthma, she has always been a frequent patient in the ICU.” Ross and her other two children, each older than Alina, also have asthma.
Back in September of 2018, before Alina got sick, Ross says she contacted her building’s manager at DCHA to discuss the conditions on her property: The refrigerator was leaking fluid, the stove was leaking gas. The next month, Alina was hospitalized. “And I said, this is what I tried to prevent,” Ross says.
“I’m lost for words,” she says. “I’m tired. The weight of the world is on my shoulders in my household. My main thing is to make sure those kids are straight. I don’t want to have to hear—another child—it’s not just about me. I know there’s other kids suffering in that housing complex just like mine.” She wants a home Alina “can breathe in, somewhere she can grow,” Ross says. “I don’t want to bury my child because of asthma. I can’t keep enduring this.”