The Kelly Miller Dwellings Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The Kelly Miller Dwellings in LeDroit Park was the kind of tight-knit community where, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit it, residents would sit outside, play music, and talk for hours. And no wonder: Some tenants of the scattered-site 160-unit public housing complex, located just behind Howard University Hospital, have lived there for 30 years. 

So when the devastating news broke in April that tenants in one of the complex’s 12 walk-up buildings were dying of COVID-19, the news spread like the virus itself.

At least seven people living in the 18-unit building at 334 and 336 V St. NW have tested positive for COVID-19, and five of those individuals have died of the disease, three tenants tell City Paper. The DC Housing Authority, the quasi-independent city agency that owns and manages the complex, didn’t notify tenants of those deaths, or even that residents had tested positive for COVID-19. (A spokesperson for DCHA declined to comment on the record about the number of positive cases or deaths, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.) 

Instead, tenants learned by word of mouth, including speaking with some families of the deceased, and from seeing the deceased’s apartment doors boarded up. (According to the Office of the Attorney General, landlords do not have to disclose positive cases in their buildings and, in some cases, sharing that type of information could violate the Fair Housing Act or the DC Human Rights Act.) When tenants learned that their own were getting sick, a few decided to clean the building themselves, believing their landlord was not doing enough to protect them. One of those tenants was Tiffany Dailey, who’s lived in the building for the last four years with her two kids.  

Dailey became concerned after learning about the pandemic in her community, as did her neighbors. She has a 10-year-old son who has a compromised immune system, so Dailey was terrified about what could happen if he got infected. With her mask and gloves, Dailey would clean the handrails and door knobs in common areas with disinfectant wipes whenever she had the time. One weekend, some of Dailey’s neighbors joined her.    

In late April, Dailey learned from another tenant that her neighbor had contracted COVID-19. Just one week later, she learned that this same neighbor—who had welcomed Dailey when she first moved in, and was a staple in the community over the years—had died. Dailey’s neighbor wasn’t the only one. All five of the Kelly Miller residents to die from the disease were Black, tracking with the racial and socioeconomic trends of the virus. The individuals, who lived across four different units, also skewed older. Dailey says everyone in her building is Black and a majority are seniors.      

Despite the increasing number of positive cases and deaths citywide, more than 5,000 and 200, respectively, at the time, it wasn’t until May 4––54 days after the mayor declared a public health emergency over COVID-19––that DC Housing Authority staff wrote to Kelly Miller’s tenants about their pandemic cleaning protocol. “DCHA staff is working daily to clean and disinfect the common areas for all our properties,” a notice posted that day reads. 

“We’re over here living it looking like, ‘um, where is this happening because it’s not happening here,’” Dailey says.  

“They spend more time cleaning the outside,” says another tenant, who asked not to be named because of privacy concerns. “Gardening.” 

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On April 29, Dailey had enough. She wrote an email to the DC Housing Authority, copying her Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and the staff of Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, to say the government agency had provided “zero contact or support” for her community during these trying times. 

“All regular cleaning and daily upkeep has completely halted which is a recipe for the virus thriving in our common areas and spreading to residents,” Dailey wrote in the April 29 email, which she shared with City Paper. “We have very old buildings with poor circulation that should consistent [sic] upkeep either way. However our common areas have not been regularly cleaned let alone sanitized during this stressful time.”

In response, a DC Housing Authority employee responded to Dailey’s original email thread, writing, “We are aware of the concern at Kelly Miller.” The representative also said a deep cleaning was scheduled for the morning of April 30. Later that afternoon, Dailey responded with  photos of the allegedly “clean” hallways, which were covered in trash. It wasn’t until a month later, in late May, that the Council passed a law requiring landlords to regularly clean common areas of apartment complexes in response to concerns about coronavirus hygiene. 

City Paper spoke with three Kelly Miller residents, who say there has only been one deep cleaning of the property over the course of the pandemic. Dailey alleges that the DC Housing Authority only started responding to her complaints to clean in June, but still does not regularly clean. She describes the agency’s response as being more reactive than proactive. 

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The DC Housing Authority denies administrators have ignored residents’ requests for cleaning. “In addition to the deep cleaning that took place at the start of the state of emergency and with each request from a resident, DCHA has been using an enhanced cleaning method twice a day every day throughout the buildings,” writes Christy Goodman, a spokesperson with the agency, in an email to City Paper. “These buildings also are monitored regularly for quality control, as well as large gatherings.” By “enhanced cleaning method,” Goodman means “a focus on common and high traffic areas, paying special attention to high touch areas, such as light switches and railings.” 

In early May, D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbittsaid household transmission is a leading cause of coronavirus spread, and one of the reasons certain residential neighborhoods saw relatively high COVID-19 cases. She also said the District’s response is focused on preventing spread among “doubled-up” households where families live in close quarters. “There is no risk of between-unit transmission, and we want to make sure people fully understand that,” said Nesbitt. 

Nevertheless, Kelly Miller tenants are concerned about the spread of the virus in their building. While part of the Kelly Miller complex is comprised of townhouses, it also has several multi-story apartment buildings, one of which Dailey lives in. The Centers for Disease Control and Infection warn  individuals living in shared housing may have challenges with social distancing, one of the few tools we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in lieu of a vaccine. Kelly Miller tenants share narrow hallways and stairwells. (They do not have an elevator or laundry room in the building.) 

And tenants tell City Paper DC Housing Authority’s COVID-19 response is not an isolated incident. A third tenant who spoke with City Paper by phone says it took a year to get his bathroom sink fixed. He had to brush his teeth over the bathtub, using it as a sink during this time. If he is capable of fixing something, he’ll just do it himself.     

“They don’t clean this building. They don’t do anything,” said the resident, who asked not to be named for privacy concerns. “As long as we’ve been here, cleaning this building was an issue.”  

“It’s ridiculous. I pay you to do that, that’s what the rent is for,” he continues. 

The resident, who tested positive for COVID-19 on April 22, believes he might have contracted the virus from his building. Since March, he says, he had only ever left his apartment to go to CVS or doctor’s appointments for his back problems. He has had trouble getting around ever since his spinal fusion surgery in December 2018.  

He worried how his body might respond to COVID-19 given his age. He is 58 years old. His neighbors—the one he used to talk about football with and the Giants fan’s wife—were hospitalized after contracting COVID-19, and one of them, the wife, passed away. He hasn’t had to go to the hospital for COVID-19. In fact, he’s experienced no symptoms at all. 

COVID-19 is actually the least of his worries. He says his back has given him more grief, as has the constant violence in the neighborhood. The Office of the Attorney General announced this month it is suing the DC Housing Authority for allegedly “refusing to address systematic drug- and firearm-related activity at ten of its properties,” including at Kelly Miller.

“It’s bad around here,” he says. His girlfriend and her son stay at her sister’s house because of the violence. But he, who is about to receive full disability benefits due to his mobility problems, can’t afford to leave. 

“DCHA has its own police force. They haven’t been able to contain crime,” says Alexis McKenney, a community organizer with Bread For The City. McKenney believes if people could live comfortably and safely in their homes—meaning, they aren’t moving in and out of public housing, housing stock that can be “uninhabitable,” because surrounding market-rate housing is unaffordable—then the few who do resort to violence might see another way. “These are symptoms of gentrification, the original violence,” she tells City Paper.  

McKenney had been helping Dailey organize her building because living conditions are dismal. Before the pandemic hit, they held a building-wide meeting where McKenney heard residents voice safety concerns, from the near-constant neighborhood violence to the mold in their own unit. Another major concern was DC Housing Authority’s “transformation plan” for Kelly Miller Dwellings. Through a private developer, the agency plans to rehabilitate the complex, and tenants do not know where they will live during this time or if they all will be able to return once construction is completed. 

The DC Housing Authority is still finalizing its plan for the Kelly Miller Dwellings under the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program. “There are no definitive timelines at this point, but we look forward to engaging with and receiving feedback from residents via WebEx, phone and when permissible, in person, to discuss the RAD process and their relocation and return rights,” Goodman tells City Paper by email.    

To address the myriad problems, Dailey has been trying to organize a tenant association, drawing inspiration from other public housing tenants who’ve successfully organized. She sees bigger things for her and her neighbors, including collectively owning their building one day. She and her neighbors have overcome a lot, she says, so she’s optimistic. Dailey, for her part, moved into public housing four years ago, after living in a homeless shelter, a consequence of not being able to work while caring for her child with Crohn’s disease. Now, she owns her own skin care line, and is also a social impact artist with her own nonprofit.       

“It’s always thought that people who are low income—we just don’t care, we’re lazy, we’re blah, blah, blah. And I just [know] that that’s not true,” says Dailey. “I don’t believe it to be true because that’s not me. And I know I don’t reflect everybody, but I do feel like all of us deserve to live healthy, happy, whole. And I do believe that some of us just don’t know that we have the choice outside of survival, to be happy, healthy, whole.” 

In the meantime, the tenants of 334 and 336 V St. NW have been caring for one another. Dailey has been disinfecting handrails when she can, and organized one day of deep cleaning with a few of her neighbors. She was able to do this after raising nearly a thousand dollars for cleaning supplies from a Facebook post about her building’s troubles. The money enabled Dailey to go door to door and pass out care packages to tenants that included everything from reusable and disposable masks to bottles of Lysol.

“I’m not waiting for government assistance to help! We can do it together!” reads a fundraiser post that Dailey shared with City Paper

Natacia Knapper, who’s been organizing mutual aid efforts citywide, has been offering Dailey technical support and giving her flyers she can pass out that outline how to access services like child care, groceries, and hygiene products. The two have also set up a table outside the building, where tenants can pick up donated items. In the absence of more help from the DC Housing Authority, they’re planning on doing it again.