At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds
At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, chair of the housing committee Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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There is currently a massive waiting list for people hoping to receive a federal voucher to help pay the rent. It’s so long that some applicants have sat waiting for two decades, and most will never see a single dollar in assistance.

That’s been the state of affairs in the District for many years now, even after the D.C. Housing Authority stopped accepting applications for these vouchers back in 2013. But it’s still a bit of an arcane housing policy matter, one that you might not expect a run-of-the-mill Washingtonian to know much about.

At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, however, is not your average District resident. As a veteran of D.C. government and the longtime chair of the D.C. Council’s housing committee, Mayor Muriel Bowser frequently dubs Bonds the “councilmember for housing” when introducing her at events. With a moniker like that, Loose Lips would expect Bonds would be acutely aware of the massive housing voucher waitlist, which stands about 37,160 people long as of January, per DCHA data provided to Bonds’ own committee.

So why did the councilmember say she “did not know that we have a waitlist for vouchers” at a recent budget oversight hearing? There’s no clear answer, and Bonds’ questions on the matter so scandalized three different housing advocates that they reached out to LL to flag her comments.

“I’m familiar with the waitlist for public housing units, less so for the waitlist for vouchers,” Bonds said during the March 30 hearing in an exchange with several witnesses testifying on Bowser’s budget proposal. DCHA does indeed have a waitlist for people hoping to rent public housing, which stands at 24,368 people as of January, but that is separate from people seeking vouchers to help them afford a home in a privately owned property.

Bonds went on to seek details from Amanda Korber, a housing law attorney at the Legal Aid Society of D.C., asking if she was referring to the Local Rent Supplement Program (a locally funded subsidy to help people pay rent). Korber clarified that she was testifying about the federal vouchers, which have the aforementioned waitlist.

“I thought that that was managed through the Department of Human Services,” Bonds continued. Wrong on both counts. DCHA manages both LRSP and the federal vouchers, known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Korber noted that “there’s just no money allocated to pull people off of it,” and Bonds, the primary councilmember with authority to allocate funds for housing vouchers, said she was “very concerned” to hear about this waitlist. The councilmember for housing pledged to ask DCHA Director Brenda Donald about the matter and “get you an answer and a sense of how we’re moving forward.”

Of course, Bonds should probably know about the issues with funding the voucher program too: In each of the last two budget cycles, her committee submitted reports recommending that DCHA should “rejuvenate its efforts to secure future funding to pull applicants from the DCHA voucher waitlist.”

A quick scan of Bonds’ past committee hearings suggests she discussed the issue in detail many times as well. In introductory remarks at one 2018 hearing, she outlined the differences between LRSP and the federal vouchers, mentioning that DCHA managed both programs. Later in the same meeting, one applicant testified he’d been waiting to receive a voucher since 2006. Another said he’d been waiting for the past four years, comments that other residents echoed in a similar hearing before Bonds’ committee a year later.

So what is going on here? LL has had plenty of moments himself where even basic facts can feel elusive, but this exchange went on for several minutes.

Bonds spokesperson Kevin B. Chavous (son of the former councilmember) says his boss is “definitely aware there’s a waitlist,” noting that her office often helps people navigate voucher issues.

“I think she was trying to get at how quickly they’re moving through the waitlist, whether or not it’s accurate right now,” Chavous says, pledging to seek additional clarity from Bonds herself.

LL will be curious to hear whatever answers he can turn up. It’s an election year, after all, and Bonds is asking D.C. voters to give her four more years on the Council in a race against a broad field of opponents.

So far, she’s made her advocacy on housing, in particular, a big part of her pitch as she seeks a third term in office. But can she realistically achieve her goals of helping D.C. renters if she can’t get her facts straight?

Update, 5:30 p.m:

In a statement to WCP after this story was published, Bonds stresses that “there is no separate waitlist for locally funded Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP) vouchers—which were the topic of the budget oversight hearing.” But Korber was clear in her testimony that she was referring to federal vouchers—a fact that the statement does not address.

“DCHA’s waitlist has been closed since 2013,” Bonds’ statement continues. “Executive Director Brenda Donald shared they are in the process of reviewing and updating information for the more than 40,000 applicants on the waitlist, many of whom may have received housing assistance through other resources, or may no longer be eligible or interested. We look forward to receiving the DC Housing Authority’s report.”