Public housing residents already knew D.C.’s housing authority was unacceptably dysfunctional 

Earlier this month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a 72-page audit regarding the D.C. Housing Authority. The audit highlighted a range of problems, including mismanagement of funds, a lack of operational oversight, and poor housing conditions. 

While most lawmakers reacted with shock, HUD’s audit was old news for DCHA program participants like myself. While as a homeless advocate I have seen and heard horror stories regularly, recently I experienced my own DCHA nightmare when the agency granted my family an emergency move after my current home suffered extensive maintenance problems. 

After orientation for my transfer voucher I discovered that among the paperwork DCHA sent they had failed to provide me with a copy of my actual voucher, something that many landlords are now asking applicants to show up front. It took two weeks of emailing DCHA before they sent it to me, but the damage had already been done. Their failure to provide me with my transfer voucher caused me to miss out on applying for several houses. 

Then, to locate housing, DCHA referred me to a housing specialist at Community of Hope. She was inexperienced and showed me homes that were outside of my voucher rent reasonable amounts. When I asked my caseworker at Community of Hope for help, she was rude and appeared angry that I called her. 

Then came the problems with DCHA’s online portal. When I was finally approved for a new home, my landlord was required to complete a packet and return it via this portal, which he did three times, without success. My landlord ended up emailing the packet directly to a DCHA employee. 

With help from my contacts at Councilmember Robert White’s office and the media, I was able to get DCHA to expedite my inspection for the new house. But most families without those connections are left waiting months for housing inspections. 

There are many different departments within DCHA, and they often don’t communicate well. I know many folks who lost their housing vouchers and ended up homeless because during the voucher recertification process DCHA lost or misplaced the paperwork that folks turned in. DCHA is notorious for losing paperwork and then punishing the clients by marking them as non-compliant. 

The pandemic has only amplified problems that have existed for decades at DCHA. Now that the majority of DCHA employees are working virtually from home, many voucher recipients like myself are left to wonder if they are actually doing any work at all. 

The shock and outrage many D.C. elected officials expressed seems performative and politically motivated. How can they be surprised by something that they knew about for years and allowed to fester? It’s a shame in the nation’s capital the only time housing and homelessness becomes important is during elections or after HUD publishes damning evidence about DCHA. 

For example, about one fifth of DCHA’s housing units currently sit vacant. Some of these units have been deemed uninhabitable due to serious housing code violations, but others are ready to be leased, and unfortunately DCHA has failed to match them with a tenant. The public housing waitlist hasn’t been updated in years, and no one seems to know how many people are currently even on it. 

According to the Washington Post, one DCHA Board member recently recommended that HUD either completely take over DCHA or at least place it in receivership. At this stage in the game, I am forced to agree. I also think DCHA needs immediate changes in leadership at both the Executive level and the DCHA Board of Commissioners. Its current director, Brenda Donald — who joined last year — is a longtime D.C. government official, but has no experience with housing. 

I think the DCHA Board Committee should replace the board members with housing advocates, voucher recipients, and public housing residents because these are the people who have direct  lived experience being housed under DCHA programs. These are the folks I would trust to make decisions that are in the best interest of residents instead of making decisions that are in the best interest of the Bowser administration. 

I also echo Attorney General Karl Racine in his recent calls for the removal of Anita Bonds as chairwomen of the D.C. Council’s housing committee. For me, this is not about finger pointing, this is about accountability and corrective measures. 

I also understand these problems have existed for decades and there is no quick fix solution. But DCHA needs to be reconstructed top to bottom. If the folks in charge are willing to accept that and take steps in that direction, I think that’s one hell of a start.  

Jewel Stroman is a formerly homeless advocate for people experiencing homelessness.

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