The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Testimony Before the District of Columbia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners
Regarding Proposed Resolution 19-01
January 17, 2019
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (“Committee”) submits this testimony in opposition to the District of Columbia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners’ (“Board”) proposed Resolution 19-01 (“Resolution”). As set forth below, the Committee is concerned that the approach to redevelopment of current public housing properties the Resolution envisions will not achieve the important goal of maximizing the availability of safe and affordable units, particularly for extremely low income residents and families. The Resolution appears to contemplate turning over responsibility for housing our most vulnerable residents to private developers, whose likely approach will involve wholesale demolition of unspecified units. We are concerned that this approach will result in a decrease in affordable housing, particularly housing suitable for families, accompanied by the inevitable displacement of, and increased housing insecurity for, thousands of residents, including families. Instead of resorting to an approach which attempts to off-load DCHA’s responsibility to those it serves to the private market, it is important to consider – and, we believe, ultimately adopt – less disruptive and harmful alternatives. To that end, we propose that the Board table the Resolution, provide the public with the data and analyses that it considered in arriving at the Resolution, and convene a working group that includes residents and advocates, to examine alternatives.
The following summarizes our specific concerns:
- Avoid Further Loss of Affordable Housing: DC’s housing crisis is not just one involving conditions in public housing; a dwindling supply of affordable units threatens increasing numbers with homelessness. Thus, plans to revitalize public housing must, at a minimum, retain if not increase, the overall stock of deeply affordable housing in the District of Columbia. The vast majority of families currently living in public housing units cannot afford to pay rents “affordable” to those with incomes at sixty or eighty percent of the average median income for rent.
The loss of truly affordable units is particularly acute for families. While the Board has not identified the actual units subject to the initial disposition effort contemplated in the Resolution, we are extremely concerned that a disproportionate number are larger units suitable for families.
The vast majority of new “affordable” units built in the area has been studio, one, or two bedroom units. Low income families who need larger units are extremely dependent on the woefully inadequate supply of public housing options. Any redevelopment of public housing must address this need.
- Minimize Displacement and Disruption – Any plan to redevelop public housing must proceed in a manner that allows families to remain in their communities, and minimizes disruption of their lives. Involuntary relocation causes anxiety and stress, and requires adjustment, as well as proper planning. Families forced to relocate lose access to community support and resources, may be subjected to longer commute times or no longer have access to public transit, and may miss days at work and potentially lose their jobs. Children must often change schools, are no longer able to participate in after school activities, and parents lose after school care for their children. Such destabilizing disruptions can and should be avoided by efforts to “build in place” – a purported cornerstone of the City’s approach to redevelopment, and other methods of sequencing repair and rebuilding work.
- Recognize that Vouchers cannot solve the problem – The local housing market is incredibly saturated. Voucher holders have significant difficulties using their vouchers, particularly in neighborhoods of choice. For example, voucher holders routinely have their subsidies terminated because they have been unable to secure appropriate housing before the expiration date of the voucher. Despite protections in the DC Human Rights Act, they are often rejected by landlords because of their source of income. And, as noted above, there are simply not enough affordable units. Therefore, while vouchers are a useful and necessary tool to help families attain safe and stable housing, adding thousands more to the ranks of voucher holders scrambling for housing compounds, rather than alleviates, the housing crisis in this City. Public housing thus continues to be a critical resource for low-income residents.
- Over reliance on Vouchers contributes to the continued segregation of DC. Despite recent increases, voucher payment limits are not on par with market rent rates in the vast majority of neighborhoods, especially the more resource intensive neighborhoods like those in Wards 1, 2, and 3. Thus, public housing residents forced to find substitute housing using a voucher are relegated to densely populated, highly impoverished, under resourced, mostly Black neighborhoods – specifically, Wards 5, 7, and 8. The racially disparate impact of substituting public housing with vouchers cannot be overstated and is of grave concern to the Committee.
In light of these serious concerns, the Committee urges the Commissions to do the following:
- Release Pertinent Information – We request that the Board and DCHA provide all data, reports, and information used to reach the decisions and conclusions included in the Resolution to any and all interested parties. DCHA should provide a report detailing any and all alternatives considered, discarded, and/or deemed inappropriate. At the very least, so that the public has an understanding of the animating analysis behind the Resolution, the Board must promptly provide the following:
- The location of the units at issue;
- A detailed analysis of the cost to repair all units and maintain these units as part of the public housing portfolio;
- An explanation regarding what other funding sources DCHA considered and pursued, and why those funding sources are inappropriate or unavailable;
- An individual evaluation of the condition of each of the 2500 units and explanation of why these units cannot be repaired; and
- A complete outline of any and all alternatives DCHA considered, short of the eliminating these units from the public housing portfolio.
- Assemble a Working Group – The group should include a cross section of stakeholders, including but not limited to, legal service organizations that work with public housing residents, fair housing advocates, and residents.
- Postpone the Vote on Resolution 19-01 – The Board of Commissioners should postpone the vote on this Resolution until such time as the public and members of the working group have had a meaningful opportunity to review the data and analyses on which the Board is relying, and to provide input to DCHA, the Board of Commissioners, and any other relevant decision making bodies regarding the need to address the state of public housing in DC.
In conclusion, many public housing units are in need of extensive repairs. This is not a new or unexpected issue. Indeed, residents and advocates have pleaded for the very repairs DCHA now calls “catastrophic” for decades. The residents have lived with these conditions for decades. This Board of Commissioners, DCHA, the District and the advocates owe it to these residents to fully and thoughtfully address these issues in a manner that does not inflict further harm.
 The Washington Lawyers’ Committee was founded in 1968 to address civil rights violations, racial injustice and poverty-related issues in our community through litigation and other advocacy. The Committee has a long history of working to address racial and other inequity in housing.