DC affordable housing resources face scrutiny at oversight hearing

Seven Zoom videos of various people on a black background.

Public witnesses testify at an oversight hearing for DHCD and HPTF. Screenshot

At a marathon oversight hearing on Feb. 15, dozens of public witnesses shared their challenges and frustrations with — as well as hopes for — the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF).

Together, DHCD and HPTF are responsible for creating and preserving affordable housing in the District. DHCD runs local programs such as inclusionary zoning and the Homeowner Assistance Fund. Administered by DHCD, HPTF is the special revenue fund D.C. relies on to build more affordable housing.

With budget constraints looming, tenants, homeowners and community organizers argued to the Committee on Housing that the city should strengthen oversight of DHCD and HPTF programs and expand investment in the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) and housing for returning citizens. 

Building more deeply affordable housing

According to the legislative mandate establishing the HPTF, 50% of HPTF’s annual funds are earmarked for deeply affordable housing for households with incomes below 30% of D.C.’s median family income, or $42,700 annually for a family of four.

However, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless staff attorney Charisse Lue testified that funds for affordable housing have been misused. In fiscal year 2021, only 27% of HPTF’s funds were put towards deeply affordable housing. This number dropped to 19% in fiscal year 2022. Lue attributed this to a lack of “aggressive oversight and intentional enforcement.” Last year’s HPTF numbers will be released in April. 

Although the council took steps in 2022 to increase HPTF oversight, Lue urged the council to pass a version of the HPTF Income Targeting Accountability Amendment Act of 2021, which would increase the monitoring of HPTF fund disbursement. She also pushed the council to institute more safeguards so that HPTF funds are appropriately used for affordable housing. Misallocation of HPTF funds results in further displacement of low-income residents, Lue said, who are disproportionately Black.

Andrea Chatmon, a housing organizer with Empower DC, suggested DHCD could allocate HPTF funds for projects like social housing. Initially championed by Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George in her Green New Deal for Housing Act of 2022, social housing has continued to gain traction. Social housing is publicly-owned, mixed-income affordable housing. In social housing, higher-income tenants pay full price for rent, which, in turn, subsidizes rent for lower-income tenants.

Chatmon said social housing is still underutilized, holding up as an example a controversial rezoning proposal on U Street that would pave the way for a high-rent development. Without social housing built into the proposal, rezoning could lead to higher rents throughout the neighborhood and displacement of current residents “in an area that is already vastly unaffordable for Black families,” Chatmon said. 

Other residents pushed for investments by HPTF in existing housing to combat displacement. A few public witnesses remarked that the most efficient use of HPTF funds to combat displacement is to invest in the preservation — rather than the creation — of more affordable housing.

Delays in DHCD homeowner programs

Many witnesses complained about DHCD’s lack of transparency, especially in programs designed to help District residents purchase and keep homes. The agency has been plagued by “substantial and unacceptable delays,” said Deborah Cuevas Hill, supervising attorney with Legal Aid DC. 

Legal Aid works with residents who receive payments from the Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF), designed to help struggling homeowners catch up on mortgages and other housing-related payments. Cuevas Hill said that the vast majority of Legal Aid DC’s clients continue to be met with “interrupted payments with many gaps, without communication from DHCD as to when payments [would] be made and why the payments [were] delayed.” 

Joanne Savage, managing attorney at Legal Counsel for the Elderly, said that HAF was “egregiously slow,” making it an “agonizing” process for homeowners. She says it takes a minimum of four months (and typically longer) for DHCD to process a single application. It then takes many more months for payments to be disbursed.

To underline the severity of delays, Hope Ndege, a Ward 7 resident, testified about her experience. Ndege applied for HAF in July 2022 and obtained approval in July 2023. Nevertheless, Ndege said she still had yet to receive any payment from DHCD, despite being previously promised payment by September 2023. As a result, Ndege said she lost her parking spot and was threatened with foreclosure.

Agency officials testified that the HAF program cut the average application approval time in half over the last year, and that continued issues are due to problems with the vendors who distribute payments. Savage recommended the Committee on Housing impose application and payment timelines on HAF and require DHCD to consult with advocates.

Protect — and improve — TOPA

One of the most striking consensuses among those who testified was the importance of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA). One after another, public witnesses overwhelmingly touted TOPA as the District’s most effective tool in preserving affordable housing.

TOPA gives tenants who are threatened with the sale of their building a voice in the process. Under TOPA, landlords must give notice of any intent to sell their property. Tenants then have a window of time when they can negotiate with contract buyers, seek alternative buyers or become buyers themselves, thus allowing them to prevent their own displacement.

A study by the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development (CNHED) found TOPA was responsible for the development or preservation of 16,224 affordable housing units in the District between 2006 and 2020.

In recent years, landlords and developers have blamed TOPA for slowing down property sales, especially when not all tenants in a building opt to buy it. These grievances prompted the council to pass the Single-Family Home Exemption Act in 2018, which prohibited tenants of single-family homes from exercising their TOPA rights.

At the hearing, however, TOPA was defended by an array of community organizations, who said they believed D.C. could help more tenants take advantage of the program.

TOPA advocates also said D.C. could make TOPA rights clearer to residents. Farah Fosse, a consultant for CNHED, said tenants can be pressured to sign their rights away, especially in Southeast D.C. where buildings are so rundown that tenants are convinced they should not be preserved. Emily Near from Housing Counseling Services, Inc. separately said some developers have perpetuated misinformation to prevent tenants from accessing TOPA. They called for the strengthening of TOPA, to guarantee “a seat at the table” for tenants.

Mel Zahnd, supervising attorney with Legal Aid DC, proposed two suggestions for building on TOPA’s power: First, require HPTF set aside 30% of its trust funds to rehabilitate aging housing stock; second, encourage the exercise of TOPA in more cases. Coupled with more investment in preservation projects, increased use of TOPA can prevent D.C. from losing affordable housing in avoidable situations, Zahnd argued.

Support re-entry housing for returning citizens

Public witnesses emphasized the link between incarceration and homelessness. According to a report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, in 2019, 57% of unhoused people in D.C. were formerly incarcerated. Returning citizens often have no savings or employment upon leaving prison. Coupled with high rates of discrimination in the housing market, which persists despite being illegal, returning citizens are often thrown into housing insecurity.

This was the case for Samuel Buggs, who, upon being released, had “no place to call home.” Testifying about his experience, Buggs said the lack of housing options forced him to sleep in laundry rooms, hospital waiting areas and unsafe environments. This desperation drew Buggs to substance abuse until Jubilee Housing, an organization that finances affordable housing for low-income residents, approached him. Buggs now serves as a member of the board of directors.

With more than 2,000 D.C. residents leaving prison each year, public witnesses highlighted the need to facilitate a transition into housing. Buggs, as well as representatives from Jubilee Housing, DC Re-Entry Action Network, Changing Perceptions and Voices for a Second Chance, called on the committee to support the Re-Entry Housing and Supportive Services Act of 2023.

This bill would create a dedicated fund and program within DHCD, support the creation of affordable housing specifically for returning citizens and connect returning citizens to wraparound services like workforce development, health care and life skills training.

“It was a transformative experience, rebirth. It was a chance to live and exist like a normal human being,” Buggs said, on receiving housing assistance from Jubilee Housing. “Safe and adequate housing is not just a privilege but a fundamental right for every human being.”

Issues |Development|Housing|Tenants

Region |Washington DC

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