Yahvon Early in her Montana Terrace apartment Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A majority of commissioners on the D.C. Housing Authority board voted Thursday afternoon to establish a plan for abating the dismal conditions in thousands of the Authority’s public housing units—a plan that some attorneys and nonprofit workers say amounts to little more than privatizing large swaths of DCHA’s portfolio.

The resolution, passed with six “yes” votes and one abstention, adopts “a framework for the stabilization and repositioning [of] DCHA’s portfolio of properties.” There are 11 commissioners on DCHA’s board, and four of them, including Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner, were not present at the emergency meeting. 

City Paper reported in December that DCHA has identified about 2,500 public housing units across its portfolio that are nearly “uninhabitable,” as the Authority refers to them in its resolution. Issues in these units include persistent infrastructure failures—like collapsing ceilings, unstable walls, and plumbing failures—along with mold and pest infestations. Much of the city’s public housing also contains lead paint or dust hazards.

DCHA has said that immediately abating some of the most concerning housing code violations will cost, at minimum, $343 million in fiscal year 2019. Director Tyrone Garrett places the long-term cost of keeping D.C.’s 56 public housing complexes viable at more than $1.3 billion. The Authority identified these costs after a nearly year-long inspection of the units in its portfolio.

Garrett says that DCHA will likely not ask the Council for that full amount, but he declined to give City Paper a specific figure, instead saying that DCHA has discussed “ballpark” figures of less than $343 million with Council staff. Pressed further about why DCHA would not ask for the full amount it has identified as necessary to make patch repairs, he said “sticker shock,” with a small laugh. He then said that the Authority might develop alternative plans to repair some units, which might not require District funds.

Garrett emphasized during Thursday’s meeting that DCHA is still determining how it plans to proceed with repairing the units it has identified as most problematic, and that the framework passed by the board merely allows DCHA staff to explore these options.

The framework asserts that DCHA should consider applying, through the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, for demolition or disposition of more public housing properties. DCHA has already filed these applications for Ward 1’s Park Morton, Ward 7’s Richardson Dwellings, and part of Ward 6’s Sibley Plaza. (Garrett told City Paperlast year that the Authority is interested in acting as the developer for the Sibley site.) Garrett said Thursday that these applications are due to HUD by the end of June.

The resolution also asked the board to affirm that some of “the most effective, available tools for addressing immediate conditions, and insuring longer term financial and physical viability” would include spending money on housing vouchers rather than subsidizing public housing complexes themselves. That decision would shift the burden to find housing to tenants, who would have to look for apartments on the private market. Advocates for low-income families frequently complain that landlords illegally discriminate against voucher holders by refusing to rent to them.

And members of the public, including DCHA tenants themselves and the attorneys at area nonprofits that advocate for them, expressed concern that emphasizing privatization as an alternative to spending District money on repairs would “strip tenants of their essential rights,” as Nathanial Aquino, a staff attorney for AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly, said Thursday.

Rebecca Lindhurst, an attorney with Bread for the City, argued before the commissioners that the proposed resolution “is a threat to public housing as we know it,” and appears to “get around the commitment to Build First.” (Build First is a development principle that emphasizes building strategically, to minimize or avoid tenant displacement.)

Amber Harding, a staff attorney at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless—who referred to the Authority’s handling of its public housing stock as “gross negligence on a massive, unprecedented scale”—testified that it was the Housing Authority’s own reticence to ask for local funds that partially resulted in the poor condition of its housing. Others echoed that assertion.

Area organizations have historically “advocated for local investments in repairs to public housing. We might have been more successful in that advocacy if DCHA had been as transparent about the crisis as it is being today,” Harding wrote in a letter submitted to the board of commissioners. “Instead, DCHA leadership often claimed that it could make do with much less and, even when it received local money for repairs, had to be heavily pressured to use it to abate health and safety risks.”