DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In August, City Paper reported on the deteriorated conditions of D.C.’s public housing units.

As one of the District’s largest landlords, the DC Housing Authority is responsible for providing affordable, safe, and clean homes to 20,000 of D.C.’s most financially vulnerable residents. But many of them, we reported, live in units thick with black mold, where rats eat through refrigerators and ceilings routinely cave in, and where “fixing” pest issues can mean nailing kitchen cabinets over a blanket of cockroaches.

At the time of City Paper’s report, which detailed the living conditions of six families at four public housing properties, the Housing Authority was partway through a structural audit of its 56-building portfolio.

DCHA paid millions to external companies for the audit, which analyzed the authority’s properties for two things. The first, required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, was a survey of lead hazards; the second, a survey of pest, mold, lead, structural, and other environmental hazards, completed through visual inspections of each unit in DCHA’s portfolio. The authority has completed the former, and expects to complete the latter by the end of January 2019.

Results from the audit, which the Housing Authority shared with City Paper, provide the fullest picture to date of the state of the District’s public housing. Most of the buildings range from five to eight decades old.

In mid-December, City Paper toured one of the DC Housing Authority’s Ward 8 properties, Woodland Terrace, with agency director Tyrone Garrett. In an extended interview, Garrett acknowledged that much of the city’s public housing infrastructure has deteriorated beyond repair, and described the scope of the agency’s plan to rebuild it, which it has been working on since he took over 14 months ago.

The agency has had to ask itself, “is [the disrepair] something that’s prevalent throughout our portfolio? And we’ve identified, yes it is,” Garrett says.

Public housing authorities in other jurisdictions across the country are facing similar stress, with agencies small and large in places like Columbus and Ashtabula, Ohio, to Huntsville, Alabama, and Danville, Illinois, weighing what to do with dated, crumbling complexes. The federal government has threatened to place New York City’s housing authority into receivership if it does not provide a viable plan to address the thousands of housing code violations across its portfolio. NYC’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, recently approved a $10 billion spending plan for NYCHA over the next five years.

Of the roughly 8,000 housing units in DCHA’s domain, the city’s housing authority has determined that 2,500 of those require “extremely urgent” attentionhomes with collapsed ceilings, many square feet of toxic mold, ceilings and walls that don’t fit together properly, plumbing systems damaged nearly beyond repair, or other conditions that might very well soon make them uninhabitable. That equals nearly one-third of the public housing stock in D.C.

DCHA has classified yet another 4,445 households as operating in “critical condition,” or with conditions that, if left unabated, could threaten the long-term viability of the unit.

“After years of maintaining 50-plus-year-old housing stock within a downwardly spiraling federal funding commitment, a day of reckoning has arrived,” Garrett wrote in a letter to his HUD counterparts in late November. “As a result of what’s been unearthed, the financial and regulatory challenges confronting DCHA are formidable.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The review of D.C.’s public housing units has come at a cost to the authority. A spokesperson for the agency says that visual inspections of each unit have already yielded nearly 16,600 additional work orders, a figure that does not include the standard 3,000 or so typically submitted by residents each month.

“That’s the challenging piece. You multiply the cost to make the rehabilitation or repair, times the number of units, and that’s when your dollar amount really starts to grow. I think that’s what we’re facing now,” Garrett says.

HUD requires its housing authorities to apply “interim controls,” or perform temporary patch work like using epoxy to cover any peeling lead-based paint, within one year of identifying the issue. (This time frame to complete this work is 90 days for units where a child younger than 6 years old lives, as well as in common areas serving that group. DCHA has already performed interim lead controls in all units with a child under the age of 6.)

These are not permanent solutions to abating lead hazards—all it takes is a bad storm and a structurally unsound roof to cause a ceiling to collapse, taking a unit back to square one—but they are mandatory. DCHA estimates it will cost $19.7 million in fiscal year 2019 to meet this interim control requirement for lead hazards, a sum that does not include an anticipated $8.5 million in temporary relocation costs for some of those residents. DCHA has asked HUD for an additional $30 million to meet this requirement.

But that cost is dwarfed by what DCHA estimates it will need to abate deeper structural and environmental concerns, like fixing ceilings that won’t stay up, or walls that fall apart when you touch them. Those costs will fall around $314.5 million for fiscal year 2019 alone, and that is a fraction of what DCHA will need to keep those units viable in the long term.

In all, the housing authority estimates it will need, in fiscal year 2019, an additional $343,088,718. In 2017, DCHA’s Capital Fund, which it uses to materially restore deteriorated units, was $16 million. Its entire annual operating budget in fiscal year 2017 was $479 million.

“We are happy that [DCHA] is finally looking at some long-standing issues in terms of needed maintenance and capital improvements,” says Beth Harrison, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society who attended a DCHA briefing on these costs this afternoon. “Our concern is going to be whether this money can be allocated from local and national authorities, how these conditions can be addressed, and what happens to tenants in the meantime.”

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The letter Garrett submitted to HUD last month shows that the authority is also in the process of preparing demolition/disposition applications for three of the authority’s apartment complexes: Ward 1’s Park Morton, Ward 7’s Richardson Dwellings, and part of Ward 6’s Sibley Plaza.

To qualify for demolition, per HUD, a property must be “obsolete” or otherwise “unsuitable for housing purposes,” with “no reasonable program of modifications [proving] cost-effective to return that portion to its useful life.” HUD would justify disposition if “the land on which the development was built is sufficiently valuable that the public housing authority can replace the existing development with an improved development at no cost to HUD.” (Garrett acknowledged that DCHA is open to identifying other properties in its portfolio for demolition or disposition, and says that DCHA is interested in acting as the developer for the Sibley site, as it did for Parkway Overlook in Ward 8.)

At the 130-unit Park Morton, the public housing complex caught in a years-long legal dispute over plans for redevelopment, DCHA estimates it will cost $10 million to abate lead hazards. Though the project already has a developer and redevelopment plan attached to it, applying for demo-dispo through HUD would allow DCHA to secure housing vouchers for the tenants currently living on the property. (A representative at Dantes Partners, one of the affordable housing development partners collaborating on Park Morton’s redevelopment, declined to make any employees available for comment.)

Garrett says that HUD could take between six and 18 months to make a decision about those properties, and consequently, DCHA is asking HUD to expedite these demo-dispo applications “so we could halt and not worry about interim controls on those particular properties to some degree.” He acknowledges that “this is very sensitive, because I know ‘Build First’ is a big concept that we want to preserve and maintain.” (“Build First” means that current residents move from their dilapidated unit directly to their new home on the property, rather than temporarily relocating during construction.)

Garrett says he would prefer to not perform extensive interim controls in buildings slated for demolition or disposition so that DCHA can use its funds to rehabilitate properties with longer shelf lives. He explains that if he has to put in “$35,000, $37,000 per unit for our interim control repairs” at a complex that is on the brink of falling apart, DCHA is short that money to make repairs at a property that is in better shape. “We can move into other complexes through our portfolio that need the same type of work that we know are not scheduled for any type of demolition or redevelopment at this time,” he says.

Public housing residents, most notably those in Ward 8’s Barry Farm, have criticized this strategy, arguing that it leaves tenants in hazardous conditions indefinitely while the agency and various legal bodies finalize and approve redevelopment plans. The authority “is using this as a blunt tool to just get people off the property,” Daniel del Pielago, the organizing director at the social justice non-profit EmpowerDC, tells City Paper. Del Pielago works closely with Barry Farm residents, most of whom have vacated the housing complex.  

“What I’m seeing is, DCHA has created these [hazardous] conditions through not fixing them. We’ll see this in properties where there’s a lot of issues happening, like at Park Morton. It’s a rapidly gentrifying area, there are legal challenges in place against it,” del Pielago says. Emphasizing the poor quality of the housing units “is a way to circumvent some of the community pushback to get to their ultimate goal of clearing properties and redeveloping them.”

DCHA has asked HUD for an additional 2,500 housing vouchers for the families living in “extremely urgent” units. It has not yet received them, though the authority’s board of commissioners recently approved the use of 272 vouchers for this purpose. (Voucher-holding tenants say it is often difficult to secure housing on the private rental market because of “source-of-income” discrimination, which is illegal in D.C.)

“We’re identifying those families living in some of the worst conditions, and we’re starting to relocate them into other units, or giving them a voucher to live outside of DCHA stock. We had our first issuance of about 60 vouchers last week,” Garrett says, before adding that “realistically,” the process of relocating these families will occur over the course of a year.

Like D.C.’s Department of Human Services, which maintains several contracts with motels across the city to shelter hundreds of chronically homeless families, DCHA also temporarily houses families in hotels, sometimes for weeks, while the authority makes repairs to their homes. Brands include Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Choice Hotels, and Marriott International, a spokesperson for the agency says.

But for many families living in public housing, the phrase “temporary relocation” spurs concerns of permanent displacement—that once they leave their homes, they won’t be able to return.

“With people talking about being displaced, and not having any ability to come back—as long as we don’t get an opportunity to rebuild anything, you’ll always be able to say that [you] can’t return,” Garrett says. “We gotta figure out a way to get something done so people have that confidence in us.”

But del Pielago has watched as hundreds of families were forced to leave Barry Farm even after an appeals court effectively put the kibosh on D.C.’s plan to redevelop it. “They were able to displace Barry Farm residents with no promise, with nothing that says they have to create more public housing,” he says. “It basically is a death knell for these public housing properties. The residents have to be relocated and we lose that stock.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The week before Christmas, DCHA submitted a letter detailing some of these particulars to members of the D.C. Council and the mayor’s office. (Brian Kenner, a senior-level Bowser administration official in his capacity as the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, is also a member of DCHA’s board of commissioners, and has been a voting member on resolutions to grant DCHA additional funds for the lead and visual assessments.)

And on Dec. 20, DCHA held a meeting with a handful of public housing advocates to notify them of these changes. “We’re supportive of local funding for conditions issues and have been asking for that for years,” says del Pielago, who was present at the meeting. “Hopefully this is not a one-time ask but something that the city does every year and that DCHA proactively advocates for every year.”

Now, Garrett says, the question DCHA must grapple with is how much money to invest in stop-gap fixes for housing that likely has outlived its usefulness, and how much of the portfolio to rehabilitate. The housing authority’s letter refers to this as its “dilemma.” It must decide between “label[ing] the affected housing units uninhabitable and remove them from the rent rolls OR continu[ing] to provide housing in deplorable conditions, with hazards, to families.” This could have, it says, “potential adverse impact on District’s affordable housing inventory and homeless population.”

In other words: The authority understands its position to be that it must decide between making families in its 2,500 nearly uninhabitable units at severe risk of homelessness, or forcing those families to live in “deplorable” conditions.

Right now, Garrett says, “I think we may be able to [spend] another $8 million, but that only gets us through a limited amount of interim controls, a limited amount of environmental assessments and repairs.”

“I want to feel like I would want my mother or any family member of mine to live in any of the units that I’m responsible for. And if that was a way to measure the goal, that would be it. Would I let my family live here? My mother, my grandmother, live in a unit that I provide?” Garrett says.  

Back at Woodland Terrace, Garrett and a team of DCHA staffers check in on the households of two families. In one, a mother of three props a mattress up vertically along a closet wall to cover holes gouged into the baseboard and wall. In another, a teenage girl leads Garrett to her dim second-floor bedroom, and points to the ceiling, where bubbles of flaking paint ripple for several square feet.

The chips fall on her while she sleeps, snow in the night.

“I think you fall into situations like this, and you want to figure out if there’s one-fell-swoop solution to turn it all around in one day. If I could, I would. I’m just not so fortunate, I’m just not that gifted and talented to have money fall out of the sky or hit the lottery, so…” Garrett pauses. “For me, it’s disheartening, and I’m really sincere about trying to do things that improve people’s lives. And the first thing is better housing. It has to start with us.”