The District’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is suing the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) over accessible housing violations, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced June 16.
Last August, Street Sense reported that 255 households were still on the waitlist for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-approved housing in DCHA-managed properties. Now, the tenants who’ve been waiting years to receive reasonable disability accommodations are at the forefront of the lawsuit against the District’s largest affordable housing provider.
These households are people already residing in DCHA properties but waiting on ADA-compliant units. accommodations. The waitlist for public housing is much longer — currently, there are 40,000 people on the waitlist for housing, which has been closed since 2013.
Racine is suing the DCHA for forcing tenants with disabilities to live in “housing that the agency itself has determined does not meet their needs” and trapping them within a disorganized and unresponsive bureaucracy, a press release from the OAG said.
The OAG is seeking a court order to stop DCHA from violating the law, restitution for tenants harmed by unlawful conduct, or other forms of relief, according to the lawsuit. Now that the case has been filed, the OAG’s office will wait for the DCHA to file a motion to either dismiss or answer the allegations.
DCHA is an independent government agency that functions as the only centralized space for extremely low to moderate-income D.C. residents to apply for help with housing without eligibility requirements. In a press release, the OAG claimed that the agency failed to provide them with basic information or a concrete plan on how they will address ongoing accessibility issues.
Sheila Lewis, DCHA’s public affairs and communications director, told Street Sense that they are unable to comment on active litigation or individual allegations.
According to Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and disability rights advocate Tiffani Johnson, the lack of accessible housing for individuals with disabilities is created by systemic failures within DCHA’s processes.
Those who qualify for accessible housing tend to stay at the bottom of the waitlist for long periods of time because they have to wait for someone residing in an accessible unit to move, no longer become eligible, or die, Johnson said.
“So either they pass away while they’re living in the accessible unit that they were luckily able to receive, or they pass away before they were even able to move into an accessible unit,” she continued.
Johnson referenced a case cited in the lawsuit, which states that one DCHA tenant approved for wheelchair-accessible housing in 2017 died in late 2021 in a non-accessible apartment, still waiting for replacement.
Along with DCHA’s failure to provide legally-mandated accessible housing, the lawsuit also pointed to the entity’s disorganization and lack of communication resulting in tenants being improperly removed from waitlists and critical accommodations records being lost.
According to Johnson, although the waitlist for housing is now closed, those who are on the waitlist and qualify for accessible housing are often unable to update their information on time due to frequent moves and address changes.
“At the time to recertify, the information is sent to the last known address. But if you’ve moved three times since the last time you were even able to recertify, what good does that do? You’re immediately kicked off the roll. And then you can’t reapply because the waiting list is closed,” she said.
The system to create and access affordable, accessible housing is convoluted and difficult to navigate, according to Rachael Gass, commissioner vice chair of the D.C. Commission on Persons with Disabilities.
“The issue is demand will always be greater than supply,” Gass said. “So this comes down to the process of how and what is approved at the developer level.”
According to Gass, in order for accessible housing to be approved, developers, zoning committees and local government entities must be held accountable earlier on in the process and policy loopholes — including historic preservation laws — must be closed.
“Where we are now is what we’ve ended up with: not enough units, or you end up inaccessible non safe units,” she said. “A lot of that is what you’re seeing with this lawsuit — there’s high demand and we’re not demanding enough.”
To solve the DCHA’s accessible housing crisis, both Gass and Johnson advocated for setting the standard higher in the future.
“It won’t ever be enough, unless what we do is set goals that are even larger,” Gass said. “That’s kind of what I’m hoping we can accomplish is that we can pressure everybody and say, ‘hey, we can set more ambitious goals,’ where every single building has had an entire floor, so it’s not one or two units. It’s an entire floor of units.”