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D.C.’s public housing residents have a common refrain when they talk about the conditions of their homes. They say it independently of each other, across many years, to different crowds of anyone who will listen—but particularly to their landlord, the DC Housing Authority.
Treat us like people, not animals.
The Housing Authority is one of the District’s largest landlords, with a portfolio of 56 public housing properties that serve about 20,000 people. Some say it’s also one of the worst, and yet more than double that number are on a closed waiting list to live in its public housing.
Over the years, the bulk of those buildings have fallen into disrepair, and the number of units too decrepit for habitation has grown. Public housing residents continue to relay the severity of their living conditions, both calmly and with anger, with exasperation and urgency and resignation, to local leaders.
Amanda Korber is a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. She sees clients who live in public housing, who live in market-rate housing, and who have vouchers to rent on the private market. “Our tenants in public housing have some of the worst conditions,” she says. “I’ve seen some pretty horrifying things in public housing. Mold, water damage, leaks, infestations—things that, you know, I think we as a city should be pretty ashamed of.”
In 2016, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute released a report on the condition of public housing properties. It cited DCHA budget oversight documents to estimate that 78 percent of its units need repairs, including to plumbing, heating, cooling, and electrical wiring systems—fixes that, all told, would require $1.3 billion.
That number dwarfs the authority’s annual operating budget—$479 million in fiscal year 2017, according to an audit of DCHA’s finances obtained by City Paper through a Freedom of Information Act request—not to mention the smaller Capital Fund budget, which DCHA uses to materially upgrade “deteriorated” units. It was $16 million last year. (DCHA also spent $39 million during fiscal year 2017 on operating costs and “ordinary maintenance.”)
The D.C. Council allocates some local funds to the Housing Authority, though Korber calls the money “a drop in the bucket” compared to what the authority needs. Of the $98.2 million the Council recommended giving to the authority in the fiscal year 2019 budget, only $3.25 million was earmarked for the express purpose of repairing public housing units––not insignificant, but not nearly enough.
In the report outlining its budget decisions, the Council’s Committee of the Whole writes that “the federal government’s chronic underfunding of public housing capital and operating expenses has placed public housing inventories at risk of further deterioration.”
The story of D.C.’s crumbling public housing infrastructure is, in many ways, the story of a country reluctant to invest in its own institutions. In 2016, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides its local counterparts with significant block grants to subsidize housing for the country’s poorest residents, gave DCHA only $14 million for capital improvements. The same year, DCHA indicated it received from HUD only about 85 percent of what it needed to operate and maintain its public housing stock.
One HUD program, the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, provides block grants to municipalities for the purpose of rehabilitating affordable homes and giving low-income families direct rental assistance. Adjusting for inflation, funding for HOME has decreased over 70 percent since it began dispersing funds in 1992. This year alone, the Trump administration asked to reduce HUD’s budget in 2019 by $8.8 billion. (Congress rejected the proposal.) The Housing Authority’s fiscal year 2017 audit refers to these discussions as “political and economic realities” to face “head-on.”
As HUD’s political landscape has changed, so too has DCHA’s. Last October, Tyrone Garrett, former vice-chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York’s affordable housing advisory board, succeeded Adrianne Todman as director of DCHA. He tells City Paper that he “inherited” a sizable backlog of 2,300 work orders across DCHA’s properties, which it has whittled down to 500 and aims to clear by the end of this calendar year.
Garrett has also directed a team of contractors to inspect every unit in DCHA’s housing portfolio to assess their conditions. Workers have visited 31 of the authority’s 56 buildings, and have generated an additional 700 work orders from the visits, a spokesperson for the authority says.
Against a backdrop of uncertainty, Garrett expressed unabashed optimism about the Housing Authority’s capacity to respond to these maintenance requests. New executive leadership in the agency’s operations division, coupled with structural changes to the work order system and re-prioritizing outstanding requests, make Garrett confident in what he refers to as “the implementation phase” of his leadership.
“We’re moving as quickly as we possibly can,” Garrett says, “because I like things finished yesterday as opposed to tomorrow. The glass is always half full for me.”
City Paper spoke to six public housing residents, or their attorneys, living in DCHA properties across every quadrant of the city. For them, “yesterday” can’t come soon enough.
The stories City Paper gathered from these tenants at Barry Farm, Greenleaf Gardens, Montana Terrace, and the Oak Street Apartments are presented below.
Though the size, footprint, age, and history of each of those buildings vary, tenants’ concerns are consistent: that maintenance requests languish for months or years with no response, that management is often hostile to coordinating repairs, and that, even when management dispatches a worker to abate an issue, it’s a “band-aid” fix that doesn’t address underlying structural issues.
“We know that there are private landlords that have been operating as slumlords across the District,” says Yasmina Mrabet, an organizer with multiple social justice groups in D.C. who works as a tenant advocate for low-income residents. “[But it’s] no question that the biggest slumlord in Washington is the city itself.”
“In an ideal world, public housing, where we as a city are the landlord, should be sort of like a model for what low-income housing could be like,” Korber says. “And I think that we are really failing, frankly.”
It is June, it is gray, and it is humid.
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Afternoon rain taps against the living room windows of a ground-floor, two-bedroom apartment in a sprawling Housing Authority complex called Montana Terrace. The 50-year-old, 56-unit building sits squarely between Brentwood and Langdon in Ward 5.
In the windowsill, stretched underneath a sheet of vinyl blinds, is Mittens the cat. He used to be the apartment’s resident mouse-catcher, but now he’s asleep in a red knit sweater, despite the summer heat. A years-long battle with cancer has left him thin and in need of a cuddle.
“We’re trying to keep his spirits up,” says Yahvon Early, a U.S. Air Force veteran with a fierce handshake and quick eyes who lives in this apartment. Mittens swishes his tail feebly, sporadically. At her feet is Nico, a cream puff of a Pomeranian with wet black eyes and a little pink tongue.
As a service dog, Nico is a constant source of joy in a place where, Early says, she mostly feels despair.
Underneath Mittens, who has since died, in a neat row along the baseboards, is the bulk of Early’s possessions, parsed out and tied up in white garbage bags to keep the animals out. Not hers, but the invaders: water bugs, cockroaches, and mice.
As long as she’s lived in her apartment—and at this point, it’s been just over a decade—she remembers having significant, consistent leaks in nearly every room of the apartment, causing water damage so severe that parts of her ceiling routinely collapse. The most regular offender is a three-foot gash by the closet in her daughter’s bedroom that opens to a tangle of silver pipes and cobwebs. It forced her daughter to sleep on a sofa in the living room for nearly two years.
An oblong bubble of water and mold seeps through the wall in the main hallway, and she’s got a patch of damp wall above her electrical box (which has caught fire twice, she says).
She uses floor fans to circulate air, because forget about turning on the air conditioning in her unit. When she does, Early says, the stench of mold is so thick she can’t breathe. She says that the moisture causes her joints to swell, and that she’s been on a nebulizer for years to stabilize her asthma, which she attributes to the mold. A dehumidifier provided by DCHA sits in the living room and takes nearly two full tanks of water out of the air every day, she estimates.
Early adds that it’s not uncommon to break out into hives after showering, and that she no longer cooks on busy holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, when so many families in the building use the water system at the same time that sewage bubbles up through drains in the bathroom and kitchen.
Stories like Early’s are those “you hear from slumlords,” Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who visited Early’s apartment in August, tells City Paper. “We shouldn’t be hearing them from a public housing agency.”
In 2017 alone, she filed eight work order requests. The receipts show they were all classified as “urgent,” and include issues like plumbing repairs, ceiling leaks, an inoperable fire alarm, faulty locks on her front door, and extensive mildew. Early says nobody from the Housing Authority addressed those work orders—in some cases, over a year after she filed them—until this summer, when they fixed the ceiling in her daughter’s bedroom.
The Housing Authority paid for her to stay in a hotel for two weeks when it finally restored and repainted the drywall in that bedroom, as well as a section of the living room ceiling. But by mid-August, when this reporter visited Early’s apartment again to look at the patching job, a pale brown but distinctly visible blob was back, smack in the middle of the repaired ceiling.
For tenants, filing a maintenance request is ostensibly as easy as a call to DCHA’s main intake hotline, where an employee relays that request to the appropriate property manager, who then schedules the repair. (Tenants with computers can also now file requests through an online portal.) But Early and Gretchen Helm, her friend and neighbor, almost roll their eyes at the mention of work orders.
Helm says crisply: “I don’t really have faith in the work order system.”
They believe requests aren’t relayed from DCHA’s intake center to its employees (an issue Garrett acknowledges and says the authority is addressing). Montana Terrace’s property manager “doesn’t control the ones that I call in; she controls the ones that she gets” from the Housing Authority, Helm says.
Helm has largely stopped submitting maintenance requests for issues that won’t cause her immediate harm. For her part, Early was so distressed by the lack of response to her outstanding work orders that she says she personally handed a stack of them to DCHA Director Garrett when he visited Montana Terrace this spring to meet tenants.
Even when a maintenance worker does make the rare appearance to repair something, Early says, the problems just keep coming back. The things that need fixing––the building’s pipes, the structural integrity of its roof and gutters—have been left to rot. “All they do is patch,” she says.
She’s also worried about crime. With faulty locks on the entryway to her building, the apartment has twice been broken into; Early says it’s not uncommon to see urine and feces in the hallway of her building, as well as strangers masturbating and taking drugs.
But Early still considers this apartment her only viable option as an income-restricted tenant. She says the Housing Authority has offered her apartments at other complexes in The Price Is Right-style reveals, but that the other units were in less safe, less central neighborhoods. (When apartment shopping within the DCHA portfolio, prospective tenants are given two options. They must tour the first apartment and reject it before DCHA allows them to view the second.)
“I feel trapped. For me to live like this…” she trails off, shaking her head.
Aside from a handful of close friends who visit, Early has largely stopped inviting people over for dinner or parties or dates, and some nights, she sits in her car for hours just to avoid the apartment. “I’m more angry than anything,” Early says. And then, that ubiquitous refrain: “It’s about treating people like humans, and not animals.”
Helm lives in the building next to Early’s, in a three-floor rowhouse that faces the playground on Montana Terrace’s complex. She’s been there since 2003, and it’s where she raised her two children.
The presence of mold in Helm’s unit is pervasive and jaw-dropping. Peeking into the air conditioning duct on the second floor of her home, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d been painted black––until you make out the few spots of white wall the mold hasn’t yet covered.
It’s everywhere. The hallways, the bathrooms, the doorframe to the backyard, the living room and kitchen ceilings, the grout, the air vents.
When the air conditioner’s condensation pump in her kitchen closet began to leak recently, a problem she has raised since she served on the complex’s resident council nearly 15 years ago, she noticed too that a portion of the wall behind it was never installed—leaving a hole directly into her neighbor’s apartment.
A Feb. 24, 2017 Healthy Homes report conducted by the Department of Energy and Environment’s lead and housing division includes a six-page spreadsheet that identifies 27 distinct hazards in her home.
“Mold/mildew growth on kitchen ceiling,” it reads. “Mold/mildew has spores that are easily released into the air and can be inhaled. These spores can have an adverse health impact on individuals with a compromised respiratory system.” It identifies mold or mildew growth in six areas of her home.
Another hazard: “Utility closet doors are damaged. This poses a serious safety hazard.” “Holes on third floor hallway. This has the potential to create lead laden dust that can be ingested and cause lead poisoning … holes provide avenues for pests to hide, breed, and migrate. Pests are unhygienic and are known to have an adverse health impact on individuals with a compromised respiratory system.” It identifies holes in three places in her home.
“The presence of these hazards places the occupants at significant risk of imminent or current adverse health consequences, and may constitute violations of District housing regulations,” a letter from the division’s branch chief to DCHA says. It’s not the first inspection to point out the glaring health risks in Helm’s unit.
In 2014, Helm hired an inspector out of pocket from Southeast Environmental Microbiology Laboratories, Inc. to assess the level of fungus and mold in her home. She pulls the wad of papers from a backpack thick with files, like extermination notices and court records, that date back to 2003.
A copy of the results show the apartment tested positive for “elevated mold conditions.” Three of the toxins it identified—aspergillus/penicillium, stachybotrys, and cladosporium— can prompt symptoms ranging from sinusitis, vomiting, a “burning sensation,” and diarrhea to, in extreme cases of chronic exposure, fatigue, skin lesions, eye ulcers, and pulmonary emphysema. That’s just a sampling of the five total toxins it found along a single hallway in Helm’s home.
“One inspector told me, ‘I’ve never seen all the colors like this,’” Helm says as she stands in the middle of her living room, staring up at the constellation of mold that slowly grows around her. City Paper visited Helm’s apartment two days after she says a maintenance worker came to her home. She walked this reporter to the second floor bathroom, where Helm pointed to the item he fixed––a new, single white tile affixed to a baseboard next to the shower.
Certain Housing Authority properties have seen the same set of maintenance issues for so long, tenants and their advocates know buildings by their housing violations. Maggie Donahue, a staff attorney at Legal Aid who works with some public housing residents, says Southwest Waterfront’s Greenleaf Gardens has long struggled with a bed bug and cockroach infestation. “If they’re really bad, they leave behind black specks,” Donahue says of bedbugs. The client’s apartment “looked like it was covered in coffee grounds.”
Another client who has lived in the building for over two decades and requested anonymity reported no hot water, no heat, mice, roaches, bed bugs, mold, water leaks, in-unit flooding, and mouse holes. One day, Donahue says, “the kitchen cabinets collapsed and just fell down from the wall. Behind them were a ton of roaches and roach residue. [Maintenance] just came back and nailed the cabinets on top of all the roaches.”
Inspection records show that Northwest’s Oak Street Apartments, a 50-unit building, has seen significant water and electrical issues. The first two months of 2017 alone saw D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs serve the property manager CIH Properties, Inc. with 10 “Notices of Violation,” warnings distributed to property managers before DCRA levies fines.
(DCRA does not typically inspect DCHA properties, because “historically they’ve been self-contained with regard to property maintenance and inspections,” a spokesperson for DCRA tells City Paper. It has only inspected Oak Street because, though it contains DCHA units, it’s a mixed-finance building partially owned by a private company.)
A sample of the violation reports, which City Paper obtained from DCRA, include “failure to properly or safely install, or maintain in a safe and working condition, a required facility – kitchen,” “defective electrical outlet,” “failure to provide or maintain a continuous supply of running hot water … to meet all normal needs,” “wall has dampness,” “central heating facility is not provided or maintained,” “door does not fit reasonably well within frame.”
“The premises are maintained in violation of the Housing Code so as to create a danger to the health, welfare or safety of the occupants or public to constitute a public nuisance,” one NOV reads. (In an email statement, CIH president Kevin O’Malley says the DCRA inspection “identif[ied] minor issues that were corrected within the following 10–14 days. There have been no follow-up complaints regarding the matters identified in the inspection reports.”)
The agency’s fine for a violation endangering “the health, welfare, or safety” of building occupants is $500.
Across the city in Ward 8, Patrice McMillan and her mother are struggling with rodents.
Though McMillan has lived in their Barry Farm home since 2006 when she moved in with her mom to take care of her after a stroke, they first noticed an issue in April of 2017, when they’d see a rat or two scuttling across the floor.
Eventually, she says, “I went to the property manager and was like, ‘Look, the rats are in the house and we’re losing the battle.’”
They started to eat through the wiring on kitchen appliances like the stove and freezer. On Thanksgiving, when McMillan tried to put dinner in the oven, “it didn’t work.” She called the Housing Authority at 7 that night, she says, and it took days (and hours of haranguing) to get someone to respond to the maintenance request.
After Christmas, rats had eaten their way through the back of her refrigerator, chomping through all of the holiday leftovers. “It was all gone in one night. I was, you know, livid. I was calling DCHA all weekend. This was a Saturday morning, like, ‘We need a new refrigerator.’ They told me on the phone it was urgent, but not an emergency,” she says.
At its worst, McMillan would see five or six rats at a time in her home. But she says the extermination company on contract with DCHA to serve Barry Farm, Pest Services Company, merely sent a worker with a rat trap and a jar of peanut butter to catch them. The company has contracted with DCHA since at least 2005, and its value grows every year. In 2016, the authority approved a 36-month, $1.02 million contract with Pest Services Company. (The business did not return City Paper’s calls. DCHA has since engaged a pest management system helmed by researchers and professors at Cornell University.) Like Early, McMillan had taken her belongings out of cabinets and closets so she could try and exterminate the unit.
Around this time, at the authority’s monthly meeting of its board of commissioners in March, a Barry Farm tenant wept over the condition of her home. An elderly tenant commented that “not even the dog” wants to live on the property. “Living at Barry Farm makes my depression worse,” she said. One resident told the room that unaddressed moisture caused mushrooms to grow out of her kitchen ceiling.
“We no longer use the kitchen at all,” McMillan tells City Paper. “We have no appliances anymore. Toaster, blender, pressure cooker, microwave––you name it, it’s been chewed up. We have a linen closet full of sheets and towels we can’t use because they’ve destroyed everything.”
At a July public roundtable hosted by the D.C. Council’s committee on housing and neighborhood revitalization, DCHA Director Garrett fielded questions from councilmembers about a 13-year-old plan to redevelop Barry Farm that was struck down in April by a D.C. appeals court.
When asked why the Housing Authority pushed forward with plans to re-home the dozens of families that still live on the property, despite not having a timeline for redevelopment, Garrett cited the abysmal living conditions. “The quality of life for residents living there is not something we want to have,” he said. “We’re not able to sustain Barry Farm in the manner [we] want.”
About a month later, in mid-August, partial demolition began on Barry Farm. But McMillan is still living on the campus with her mother in their Stevens Road SE home, and the construction is two streets away from her. They have 90 days to find another home on the private rental market with the voucher they’ve been given, or be placed in another public housing property.
She says she’s still fighting the rats.
“The lack of care they have for this situation is the part that hurts the most,” McMillan says. “The lack of empathy and understanding. The heartlessness. After they slap you around, they expect you to come back and trust them. I don’t believe you. You know? I think I’ll do this on my own.”