The D.C. Council’s reconstituted Housing Committee expects to have a busy year as legislators grapple with voucher backlogs, poor shelter conditions and a still-under-fire housing authority. Street Sense and The DC Line caught up with At-Large Councilmember Robert White, the new committee chair, to hear about his plans for the next two years.
During the conversation, White called for the city to create an emergency plan that allows people experiencing homelessness in D.C. to use the hundreds of outstanding housing vouchers they need but have not been able to access. He also outlined how the committee can help improve the District’s housing affordability, shelter conditions and public housing.
This conversation, which took place the day before last week’s McPherson Square encampment closure, has been edited for length and clarity.
On committee priorities
White takes over the lead on housing policy from At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds, whom many housing advocates saw as a lackluster chair. The new Housing Committee includes her prior portfolio of the D.C. Housing Authority and the Department of Housing and Community Development but also incorporates the Department of Human Services, including homelessness services and housing vouchers.
Q: As the new chair of the Housing Committee, what are your main priorities?
A: I am intent on fixing things. Because I have the benefit of bringing a fresh perspective, I want to make sure I’m not adopting anybody else’s agenda or baggage, but working through the issues.
So, a perfect example is McPherson. We clearly have issues if I’m going to encampments and talking to person after person who’s been approved for a housing voucher for years. And then I’m asking well, why are you not staying in the shelter in the meantime, and consistently, people are telling me, they don’t feel safe, they feel like it’s unclean, and they can’t get sleep. Understanding from the people most impacted by the work what we need to fix, that’s the way you develop the right agenda.
Q: How will you involve people with lived experience?
A: We’ve got to go talk to people and see the issues ourselves, so, in addition to encampments, the committee members have to go to the shelters to understand why people are saying they don’t want to go to these buildings that taxpayers spent billions of dollars on. I don’t expect a lot of people who don’t already come to the council to come to the council. I think it’s better to expect us to change how we operate.
Q: And just to get a baseline, how effective is D.C. at preventing and addressing homelessness now?
A: I would give us a C, which puts us ahead of most jurisdictions, but it’s still a C. I think we will be a shining example when we start to make the programs that we have funded work better. But we’re not there yet.
Over the last two years, D.C. funded 3,000 new housing vouchers for individuals. But as of Jan. 17, only 762 people had actually rented an apartment with one of these subsidies. Hundreds of individuals are still waiting. Both the D.C. government and the nonprofits that administer these vouchers have acknowledged this backlog, and have blamed it on staffing shortages and procedural delays.
Q: You alluded to a huge lack of trust between people who are experiencing homelessness and service providers and the government. How do we address that?
A: I had a lacrosse coach who said, “Nothing succeeds like success.” The perception of the homelessness system is based on experiences. And what they are experiencing now and what they are hearing from other people is that it’s not working. We need them to see that it is working.
When people see “Hey, I got approved for a housing voucher and now I am in a home,” other people are going to want a housing voucher. But if you know a lot of people who have not been approved for housing for years, you are in no hurry to get one yourself. We have done too much patting ourselves on the back for funding things and creating programs. We’ve got to start making these programs work better.
Q: You mentioned vouchers. How are you thinking about changing the voucher process?
A: The voucher process has to be improved. To have been a part of the council that funded a historic number of vouchers and then to meet so many people who are living on the street approved for a housing voucher for years is disheartening.
One request I am likely to make is for the agency to make an emergency plan to get through the backlog. I think they can develop the plan. But it’s going to take some pushing from the council.
Q: When you say pushing, what do you anticipate that looking like?
A: My hope is that a request from the council gets us going. I don’t want to have to pass legislation to say develop an emergency plan. I think almost everyone wants to be part of the solution.
Q: Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto recently released a budget request including some items that could speed up the voucher process, such as increasing funding for bridge housing and case managers. That’s slightly longer term than what you’re talking about, but is it something you’re considering?
A: Those are the types of things I am thinking about. But, best-case scenario, this funding comes online in October, then you’ve got to hire people and find properties.
Q: And more vouchers probably come online at that time?
A: Exactly. So I want to make sure we’re not waiting for months for something that we need to be acting on in weeks.
On encampments and shelters
The National Park Service removed 55 people from McPherson Square park on Feb. 15, a move that White and four other councilmembers spoke out against. Residents were offered some level of housing support, and told to go into D.C.’s low-barrier shelters after moving out of the park. A week before, a Street Sense and DC Line article reported the city may be approaching a shelter shortage.
Q: We’ve talked about McPherson. In this case, you said the encampment shouldn’t be shut down. When, if ever, do you think encampment closures are appropriate?
A: Most people, if they believe someone can help near real-time, are going to choose to live somewhere other than outside. I don’t think there is any way to solve the encampment problem without getting people into housing. Otherwise, all we’re doing is shuffling people around, and I worry about that. As long as we tie encampments to public safety or start consciously or unconsciously with an assumption that most people want to live outside and camp in tents, we’re gonna miss the mark. So I think we have to start with a more accurate premise, which is, most people don’t want to live outside in encampments, how do we create the conditions to make sure that’s not happening?
Q: Last session, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau proposed a bill that would have placed some limits on when D.C. could close encampments. Would you be open to a similar bill?
A: I’m not closed to those kinds of options. That certainly could be a good interim measure.
Q: We’ve talked a little bit about shelter — with the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Residents (PEP-V) closing, D.C. is losing a non-congregate shelter option. Do you support the funding of PEP-V or another non-congregate shelter?
A: I want to make sure the options that we are using taxpayer money on are options that people are going to choose. I know that there are some folks who have not liked PEP-V sites because of certain restrictions, the same way some people don’t like our shelters because of the conditions. I don’t get the sense that we have focused enough on why people are not using the sites that we have, and it seems like that’s a problem we will want to solve.
Q: A lot of shelters are operating 24/7, but that’s been up in the air based on funding. Would you support continued funding to make sure shelters can operate 24/7 instead of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.?
A: I’ve never thought that people having to leave shelters early in the morning and line up at a certain time is the best way to help people, so that’s a concept that doesn’t immediately make sense to me. What do you do with your things while that’s happening? How do you feel any sense of grounding that you can build out from?
On public housing
In October, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) prepared a scathing audit of the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) that found, among other things, public housing units were often vacant and in poor repair. White subsequently helped lead an overhaul of DCHA’s board, and has warned the housing authority could be taken over by the federal agency if it doesn’t make sufficient progress by HUD’s March 31 deadline.
Q: In November, you were talking about DCHA potentially going into receivership and things looking pretty dire. Are you more optimistic than you were?
A: I am hopeful at this point. When we have our oversight hearing and see the housing authority’s response to HUD, that’s when we’ll have enough information to understand if we are heading in the right direction or just spinning wheels.
What I am trying very hard to do with the housing authority is create the conditions for improvement, which are an engaged and experienced board and an agency that is weeding out bad actors and attracting people around a vision of competence and transparency. But we’re still in the early days of their work, and I think there’s still going to be a little bit more pain before we turn the corner.
Q: Again, talking about trust, I went to one of the mass leasing events DCHA had and some people there said things like “I don’t want to live in public housing; I’ve heard what the conditions are like; I have heard what the crime is like.” What can DCHA do to build back trust that it will be a responsive landlord?
A: DCHA knows hopefully better than I do what the conditions in public housing are, and a lot of them are conditions that we wouldn’t want to live in. I always ask myself, “Is this where I want my kids living; is this where I want my parents living?” And if the answer is no, then I feel like I’ve got to do something about it. This is why I asked the mayor for a significant infusion of money to help improve the conditions. People have to live in public housing right now because there is such a stark gap between the amount of money you need to live and the amount of money that a lot of people make, so it is a necessary public asset, and deferring this work only makes it worse.
On affordable housing
At the beginning of the year, White introduced the Common Ground Amendment Act of 2023, which would change how the city handles unused public land. As the head of the Housing Committee, he will oversee the production of affordable housing, including through the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF). Past reports have faulted the District for failing to meet targets for how much of the available funding goes to creating units for extremely low-income households.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the Common Ground Act?
A: It was a result of being frustrated with the process of giving away public land. Too many of us feel like developments on public land look too much like private development. The bill puts the community in the driver’s seat to identify what it is they need, be they public assets like libraries, rec centers or housing. And where housing is built, we build more affordable housing and more multi-bedroom housing, things that the private sector just is not developing much of on their own.
Q: How can the city better use the Housing Production Trust Fund to guarantee affordability, given that’s been a problem in recent years?
A: The HPTF is doing pretty well producing housing for people making 80% of the area’s median income. There’s a real need there. So I am glad about that. But it is consistently missing the mark on producing housing for people making 60% or less, particularly 30% or less of the area median income. Council oversight by itself isn’t going to fix the issue, because the council has said something about this in the past, there’s been an auditor’s report, and an inspector general’s report. So shining a light on the issue has not fixed it. We have to do more.
Q: Is there something in the Housing Committee’s portfolio you think people don’t know enough about?
A: We have some pretty incredible housing programs in the District. If you are a District resident and you want to buy your first home, you can get up to $202,000 [through the Housing Purchase Assistance Program]. If you work for the city, you can get thousands more. And if you work as a first responder or a teacher, you can get more on top of that. It’s a difficult housing market so, you know, you haven’t like won the lottery with this program but it creates homeownership opportunities.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in print.
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.