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People live in terrible conditions in some of D.C.’s affordable housing

Two local papers find health, safety issues in subsidized units

A public housing complex in Northwest D.C.
AFP/Getty Images

Two new reports based on public-records requests and multiple interviews indicate that much of the District’s affordable housing stock presents a sorry state of affairs.

The homes of more than 40 families who had received government-subsidized rental vouchers tested positive for lead contaminants over the past five years, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, citing the results of a Freedom of Information Act request.

In some cases, children were poisoned by ingesting lead paint that had peeled off walls. Elevated lead levels in young children’s blood streams are associated with problems in neurological development, and in the 1970s the federal government banned residential uses of lead-based paint. The ban was part of a series of other regulations on lead paint.

One woman who used a rental voucher to live in a house in Northwest told the Post that when he was one, her son had double the amount of lead in his blood than the level that government standards say is elevated. The woman, Donna Black, said her son, now three-years-old, “is not a normal 3-year-old.”

“The city is the number one reason why this has happened to my son,” Black told the paper. “They let our family move in there, and it was fixed up to the point where it could look like it was okay, but it really wasn’t.” Per the Post, Black sued the owner of the house and the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA), which regularly inspects properties where renters use vouchers.

A spokesman for DCHA said landlords are ultimately responsible for eliminating lead from their properties. “In all cases, DCHA immediately takes appropriate actions against any private property owner where a DCHA inspector identifies peeling paint,” he told the Post.

On Thursday, a second report in the Washington City Paper found that in parts of DCHA’s own portfolio of public housing, which includes 56 properties and more than 8,300 units, tenants live with conditions ranging from mold and mice to broken appliances and leaks.

The paper interviewed six public housing residents or their legal counsel across four public housing complexes in D.C. “All they do is patch,” Yahvon Early, a resident of the Montana Terrace apartments in Northeast, told the paper of DCHA’s efforts to maintain its housing stock. Local activist Yasmina Mrabet called the District itself “the biggest slumlord” in D.C.

DCHA Executive Director Tyrone Garrett told the City Paper that since he joined the agency last year, it has reduced the number of maintenance requests in its backlog from 2,300 to 500. “We’re moving as quickly as we possibly can” to repair buildings and units, he added.

But Nicole Odom, a tenant of the Barry Farm public housing complex in Southeast, recently told Curbed DC that she has waited long stretches of time for issues in her apartment to be fixed and that conditions at Barry Farm were “definitely getting worse.” Odom lives with her husband and six children at the property, which is slated for mixed-income redevelopment.

She recalled filing a maintenance request with DCHA, but being told that her family was not in the agency’s system and needed to be put back in. “They had me as vacant,” Odom said. While Barry Farm is part of a D.C. initiative to redevelop four ailing public housing sites, officials are now reworking plans for the property after an unfavorable court ruling this year.

Contractors for DCHA are currently inspecting all of its housing units and have gone to 31 of its 56 properties thus far, the City Paper reports. The paper cites a 2016 analysis by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a local think-tank, which found that more than 6,500 of D.C.’s public housing units—or 78 percent of the portfolio—needed “significant capital improvements.”

The estimated cost of those improvements, including new roofs, HVAC units, and electricity systems, was $1.3 billion. But in 2015, the think-tank noted, DCHA “received only $14 million for capital improvements from the federal government” and much of it “went to filling gaps in the agency’s budget” rather than funding new renovations.

The reports come as local public housing authorities across the country—whether in New York or Illinois—face scrutiny over their stewardship of their units. They also follow years of gradual disinvestment from public housing by the federal government.

This is not the first time that DCHA properties have seen problems. In 1994, a District judge put the authority in receivership, or third-party management, because of unsafe conditions at dozens of its properties. By 2000, conditions had significantly improved, with an official report called “Toward Recovery Accomplished” touting DCHA’s progress.

“[The receiver] has so successfully woven some of the District’s worst public housing slums back into the cityscape that it is now often hard to tell where the ‘projects’ begin and end,” a Post article on the improvements said that year. The headline was “Mission accomplished.”