D.C. Housing Authority Executive Director Tyrone Garrett was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, he says of his lead paint problem.
One of Garrett’s first initiatives when he took over as DCHA executive director in 2017 was to take stock of a long neglected issue in D.C.’s public housing properties: lead hazards. In 2018, Garrett ordered lead risk assessments of all DCHA properties. By May of that year, when completed assessments started rolling in, the well-intentioned initiative presented him with an overwhelming mandate: Fix it, and soon.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Lead Safe Housing Rule requires that lead found in areas where children younger than 6 years old live must be fixed with temporary repairs, known as “interim controls,” within 90 days of a completed risk assessment. Children under 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can cause brain and nervous system damage, developmental delays, and learning difficulties, among other issues; in high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal. For units and common areas where children under 6 do not reside, the remediation deadline is one year.
Last November, D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson published a report that scolded DCHA for its failure to meet HUD’s deadlines. The report found that in units or common areas where children under 6 live, DCHA failed to complete the temporary repairs, which typically involves painting over chipping or cracking lead paint, in 33 out of 43 (77 percent) cases within 90 days. In 14 of those 43 cases (32 percent), it took DCHA an average of 408 days to address the lead hazards, the report states.
Garrett objected to the D.C. Auditor’s findings, which he believes did not take into account the massive amount of work required, coupled with DCHA’s limited budget.
But back up to May 2019, about a year and a half before Patterson released her report. DCHA was working to address the lead issues in some cases, and in others, Garrett had decided to relocate residents using housing vouchers. Patterson’s office was just starting to receive the underlying records for the audit, which showed that DCHA was behind in meeting HUD’s deadlines.
More specifically, the records showed that DCHA had already missed the 90-day deadline for five properties where Garrett opted to relocate families rather than address the lead. The properties—Benning Terrace, Fort Dupont Townhomes, Highland Additions, Richardson Dwellings, and Langston Dwellings—were slated for demolition or major rehabilitation.
The release of those materials to the D.C. Auditor sparked a special meeting among DCHA senior staff, including the agency’s attorneys, according to a source familiar with the discussions who spoke with LL on the condition of anonymity. During the meeting, DCHA’s lawyers and internal auditors voiced concern about potential legal liability the housing authority could face if it continued to keep families in lead-infested buildings, even if it planned to eventually move them to safer housing, the source says.
DCHA senior staff met again soon after the special meeting, but this time with attorneys hired from the firm Beveridge and Diamond, which specializes in federal and state environmental health and safety compliance. The outside lawyers raised similar concerns about the 90-day deadline, the source close to the discussions says. The takeaway was to address the lead as soon as possible, regardless of whether DCHA planned to relocate families, the source says. The families continued living in buildings with lead until they could use their vouchers to relocate.
In an interview, Garrett declined to comment on the content of the two meetings or on the advice from his attorneys. He disputes any implication that he acted in bad faith and describes the difficult situation he faced.
A total of 274 families with children under 6 lived in DCHA properties, he says, and at least 136 of those families lived in the five properties referenced in the auditor’s report, according to a spreadsheet the auditor provided to LL. Garrett believed at the time that relocating the 136 families with vouchers would be the most effective way to ensure they lived in safe and healthy units. He acknowledges that the process of using a voucher, which typically takes longer than 90 days, isn’t always smooth. Credit issues, a history of evictions or criminal convictions, or overdue rent can cause delays or disqualifications.
But, he says, he had no other options. He couldn’t move the families into other public housing units because they were full of lead or were unsafe in other ways.
So why not address the lead in those five buildings after it was obvious DCHA missed the deadline and attorneys advised him to do so?
The temporary repairs “were probably too exorbitant,” Garrett says. “If we could have done interim controls in those units, we probably would have.”
But in a follow-up interview, Garrett says DCHA actually did end up performing interim controls in some of those units. Though he could not specify a date, Garrett says he eventually re-evaluated where temporary repairs could be most effective and completed the work in 46 units. The repairs disqualified those residents from using a voucher, according to the D.C. Municipal Regulations. The rest of the units required repairs that Garrett believes were too extensive or would have lasted only a short time. For example, a leaky roof that lets water into a unit could warp the new paint, rendering the temporary repair ineffective.
He adds that the five properties remain slated for demolition or a major rehabilitation.
“We didn’t want to occupy these units or spend money for an interim control in a unit that we knew was going to be demolished at some point in time,” he says. “We could redirect that money to actual abatement for units we knew we were going to have to actually maintain.”
Also weighing on Garrett’s mind: He says HUD is expecting DCHA to completely abate the lead in its properties by 2023, and he doesn’t know where the funds are going to come from. “We’re struggling to get through interim controls, using reserve money to do it,” he says. “Where do we get the money to do abatement? So now, if we leave a resident in a particular unit that we know the interim control is not going to hold, why would we spend that money in that manner? It just falls down like that for us, unfortunately.”
LL notes DCHA’s Moving to Work Plan for fiscal year 2021 shows about $9.3 million in unspent capital funds that HUD allocated in 2018 and 2019. Those funds can be used for “units renovation, interim controls for lead-based paint testing, abatement, inspections and relocations, site improvements at various sites, plumbing lines upgrades,” and other repairs.
In her audit report, Patterson describes Garrett’s decision to relocate families using housing vouchers rather than fix the lead hazards as a “lack of understanding” of HUD’s rules.
Garrett objected to the auditor’s characterization, and in his written response to the audit, he claims that “HUD regulations do not require interim controls in units that are planned for demolition and will not be re-occupied in the future.”
Patterson disagrees with Garrett’s assessment. In her own response to Garrett, she cites the exemption to HUD’s Lead Safe Housing Rule, which only applies to unoccupied units.
The exemption says the 90-day rule does not apply to “an unoccupied dwelling unit or residential property that is to be demolished, provided the dwelling unit or property will remain unoccupied until demolition.”
In an interview with LL, Garrett did not claim the exemption applied. Rather, he acknowledged that DCHA asked HUD for a waiver of the 90-day deadline—essentially asking HUD for its blessing to keep children in areas where lead is present for longer than 90 days. HUD rejected the request, Garrett says.
When LL pointed out the contradiction, a DCHA spokesperson said the waiver request was pro forma.
Garrett expressed frustration with LL’s questions and the scrutiny he’s receiving for what he believes were the right decisions. He acknowledges that it was likely impossible to relocate families by the 90-day deadline. But he believes it was also unlikely that DCHA could have addressed the lead in their units in that time. Lead had been present in D.C.’s public housing for years before Garrett took over, he points out, and only through his initiative did the agency identify the scope of the problem and move to fix it.
“They could have pulled this trigger 10 years ago,” he says. “You could have hit somebody for not taking action for a 10-year period. They’re getting me for not taking action within 90 days. So I’m trying to make up for what I believe to be over 10 years of inaction in 90 days. That’s a little hard for anybody to do.”