The Park Morton public housing complex has languished as New Communities struggles to get off the ground.
The Park Morton public housing complex has languished as New Communities struggles to get off the ground.

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Slightly more than a year ago, in April 2013, the D.C. Housing Authority bowed to reality and closed its waiting list for people seeking housing assistance. In practice, housing assistance—-in the form of housing subsidy vouchers or placement into public housing—-was already off limits to people not already on the list, which had extended beyond 72,000 names. But the Housing Authority was devoting resources to managing the list, resources that could have been used to place more people from the list into housing. And so the list was suspended.

A Housing Authority spokeswoman at the time, Dena Michaelson, told me that the goal was to purge the list of households that were no longer eligible for or interested in housing assistance, and to bring it down to a manageable level. She hoped to have parts of the list open again within a year, possibly starting with seniors.

Now a year has come and gone, and the list remains closed. But tomorrow, the great purge begins.

The Housing Authority announced today that it is launching a 100-day effort to contact every household on the waiting list. The blitz will include emails, letters, outreach to advocacy groups and politicians, and, yes, a media campaign, in which I’m now complicit.

People on the waiting list are asked to respond by mail, by phone, online, or at one of 12 public kiosks. Anyone who verifies his or her interest and eligibility will be listed as active; anyone who hasn’t after 100 days will be deemed inactive. People on the list who have been in contact with the Housing Authority in the past year, totaling more than 11,500 households, are automatically considered active. That leaves just more than 60,000 households to be verified.

“Our goal in reengineering is simple: to make the list easier to manage for the agency so that we may set realistic expectations for our clients as to how long it will take to get housed,” Housing Authority Executive Director Adrianne Todman said in a statement.

The need for an update to the unwieldy list is clear. Less obvious is why it’s taken more than a year to get the process started.

“This is an extensive campaign that requires coordinating a lot of people and processes—-including regulatory processes,” says Housing Authority spokeswoman Christy Goodman in an email. “We’ve been in regular contact with housing advocates and community organizations to be sure our efforts not only followed regulations, but would reach our entire clientele. Once the planning was completed and DCHA received board approval, we put those plans in motion.”

Todman has said it would take $1.3 billion just to bring all the city’s public housing up to par. The city is working to redevelop several public housing complexes into mixed-income communities, with the promise of one-to-one replacement of all demolished public housing units. In at least two of these complexes—-Park Morton and Barry Farm—-the Housing Authority isn’t backfilling vacated units because of the expectation that they’ll soon be razed, meaning that ongoing delays in those redevelopments are keeping the waiting list longer that it might otherwise be.

A previous effort to purge names from the waiting list in 2008 cut the list from about 58,000 households to about 26,000 households. In the years that followed, the list nearly tripled, as the recession claimed homes and jobs and the recovery raised the cost of housing.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery