The Capitol Riverfront neighborhood has been revitalized with new housing, parks, and restaurants, but the public housing has yet to be fully replaced.
The Capitol Riverfront neighborhood has been revitalized with new housing, parks, and restaurants, but the public housing has yet to be fully replaced.

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The D.C. Housing Authority would need an additional $1.3 billion to bring the city’s public housing stock up to date, according to DCHA Executive Director Adrianne Todman—-a major impediment to the modernization of D.C.’s public housing that helps explain why key projects have stalled.

Testifying this afternoon at a D.C. Council oversight hearing that featured many public witnesses frustrated with the slow pace of efforts to replace public housing with mixed-income communities, Todman laid much of the blame for her agency’s funding shortfall at the feet of the federal government, which has reduced DCHA funding substantially in recent years. “Unfortunately, our national leaders do not appear to appreciate this form of affordable housing and continue to underfund it,” she said.

According to Todman, DCHA would require about $1.3 billion in new funding to bring its entire housing stock—-more than 8,300 units—-to “a 20-year viability.” And that’s just the existing DCHA housing. In order to accommodate the approximately 71,000 D.C. residents on the now-closed waiting list for housing assistance, the figure would rise to $2.3 billion, Todman said.

The difficulty in funding public housing projects has caused substantial delays in efforts to convert troubled public housing complexes into mixed-income neighborhoods through the Hope VI and New Communities programs. The redevelopment of the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg complex in what’s now the Capitol Riverfront, for example, was supposed to be finished last year, but only 515 of the 707 promised replacement units have been built.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Debra Frazier, a former Capper/Carrollsburg resident, at today’s hearing. “How long does this community have to wait for affordable housing? It’s been 13 years.”

Will Merrifield, a staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, lamented that the New Communities program, with its promise of one-to-one replacement of all affordable units, doesn’t actually create any new affordable housing in the city. “Not one of the 70,000 people on the waitlist will be housed by New Communities,” he said. He added that with the effort to turn low-income housing into mixed-income communities struggling even in neighborhoods with surging real estate values, the prospects for successful redevelopment in poorer parts of town are slim.

The city and housing advocates have generally supported the idea of replacing sprawling public housing complexes—-which tend to suffer from neglect and crime—-with mixed-income housing. But recently, the strategy behind New Communities has come into question, given how open-ended the process has become. In theory, the creation of market-rate units would subsidize the cost of rehabilitating the affordable units, while also promoting diverse neighborhoods. But in practice, as the $1.3 billion figure highlights, adequate funding can be hard to come by.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery