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Guest Host: Michael Schaffer
More than 80% of the 8,500 public housing units in the District are in disrepair, some with conditions so dire that they are making children and elderly residents ill.
D.C. housing officials have announced a plan to demolish or gut and rebuild 2,610 units — that’s about a third of the city’s public housing stock. The plan calls for potential partnerships with private developers to makeover 14 public housing complexes that currently have dangerous and unhealthy living conditions, including failing plumbing and HVAC systems, mold, lead contamination and vermin infestations. These units are home to more than 2,600 families in the District right now.
The agency’s plan to tear down these complexes and to partner with private developers is sparking anxiety for some residents and housing advocates who fear that they will be displaced in a rapidly gentrifying city that many long-time residents say is becoming unrecognizable and unwelcoming for all but the very wealthy.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
MICHAEL SCHAFFERYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Michael Schaffer from Washingtonian sitting in for Kojo. Later in the hour, we're going to take a look at a new book of punk photography. But first D.C. housing officials have announced a plan to demolish or gut a third of the city's public housing units. The plan calls for potential partnerships with private developers to make over 14 public housing complexes. All of them currently have dangerous and unhealthy living conditions. The agency's plans especially the ones involving private partners are sparking concern that residents will be displaced in a rapidly gentrifying city that many long time locals say it's becoming unwelcoming for all, but the very wealthy.
MICHAEL SCHAFFERJoining us right now in the studio are Tyrone Garrett. He's the Executive Director of the D.C. Housing Authority. And Rebecca Lindhurst, she is a Managing Attorney for Bread for the City, a front line agency serving D.C.'s low income residence. Thank you guys for joining us.
TYRONE GARRETTYeah. Thank you for having us.
REBECCA LINDHURSTThank you.
SCHAFFERTyrone Garrett, tell us more about the details of this plan. What's the goal?
GARRETTWell, I need to take a step back and just create an outline for exactly how we got here. When I took over about 20 months ago, what we found was that there were inconsistencies with what residents were telling me and what was actually going on physically at the properties. So we invoked this grand plan to go out and meet with the residents through Town Hall meetings, on one on one meetings, and even through our board meetings. And the residents expressed such concern that I opted to do an environmental study of each individual unit throughout the whole entire portfolio.
GARRETTSo we went through and identified all 6,000 or more units and identified exactly what was going on from environmental issues, lead issues, infrastructure issues, vermin and rodent infestation. And from that we've come up with the idea and the concept is that over 2600 units are in extremely urgent condition. Now, let's remember that these units are actually over 50 years old at many of the properties themselves. In addition, over the last 20 years, there has been a decrease in funding from the federal government from HUD into -- allow for capital improvements by the housing authorities across the country.
GARRETTSo we're no different than anyone else. So this has sparked a rapid plan to try and put together to improve the conditions for our families. And this is what this is all about. Families are living in conditions that are not -- I feel morally obligated to do something about. My administration feels the same way.
SCHAFFEROkay. So the plan includes three paths for fixing or completely revamping these failing housing units. Can you tell me what are the three paths? How do you decide which units fall into which?
GARRETTWell, the first path will be a stabilization. The second will be rehabilitation. And then the last would be redevelopment. And from that we have a team. We've assembled a team in office and also some consultants that work with us that identify exactly what the actual needs are. We have a physical needs assessment of all of our portfolio every single property. And so we know exactly what needs to take place and what the extreme conditions may be. An example of that would be with the allocation of $24.5 million awarded to us, allocated to us from the District government over the last few weeks. What we're going to be doing with that money is rehabilitation at four properties.
SCHAFFERAll right. So the aspect of the plan that has received a great deal of media attention over the last week is the proposed partnerships with private developers to reposition 2100 units. Can you talk to me about the potential role of private developers and what does repositioning mean?
GARRETTWell, for us repositioning really means utilization of private equity to assist us. As I said, the federal government has basically stopped or decreased this investment in capital improvements for us. So in order to seek opportunities to improve and stabilize the conditions in the units we need to seek private equity. Now, sometimes in some cases that might entail utilizing a partner, a private developer partner to work with us, but in other cases the Housing Authority could be self-developing itself. We want to remain the largest landlord in the District of Columbia. And I know there are fears and concerns about exactly how we're going to do that through the use of private money. But it is our intent to remain and actually if possible increase the number of affordable units in the District.
SCHAFFERCan you give me a sense of -- you said there's been a big drop off in federal funding, which is one of the reasons you need to bring in private partners. Can you give me a sense of the magnitude of that drop off?
GARRETTEstimated over in the billions, estimated over $50 billion decrease this particular year.
SCHAFFERAnd for your agency?
GARRETTNot for our agency, but overall throughout the nation. And we've identified within our agency we would need almost $2.2 billion if we were to maintain the public housing stock as is to improve it and to stabilize it, but that does not mean any source of funding for operating.
SCHAFFERIs this like a Trump administration Ben Carson thing or has it been going on before that?
GARRETTNo. This has been going on for many years now at least the last 10 to 12 years. And from that Housing Authorities have been preparing and we're in the midst of the same preparation to move into what I consider the new reality of public housing.
SCHAFFERSo whose going to own the things once they're developed?
GARRETTIt's going to be a combination. Housing Authority will always be in the fore front. That's the way we're going to look at each individual project. Now, depending upon financing there could be variations in how it works, but we want to be and will continue to be owners, managers of the properties. And that's our intent. That's how we start off our process.
SCHAFFERTell me about the timeline.
GARRETTThis is going to take many years. Remember we're talking about over 2600 units that we need to work with right away over 14 properties. Getting started now means that this is going to be an actual anywhere from five to seven year plan for those 14 properties. And if we look at our whole entire portfolio we're talking about anywhere from 17 to 20 years to go through over 6000 units.
SCHAFFERSo what is going to happen to the residents in this time? Are there plans in place for relocating them?
GARRETTWe're working on those plans now. What we need to do is initiate our first step. And our first step is what we're doing now. Talking about what we need to do and why need to do it. We're going to be getting resident engagement meetings this evening going out to the various properties that are going to be impacted and talking about what the process will be.
GARRETTNow I have to caution everyone this isn't going to happen overnight. We're not asking residents to go home, pack their bags, and be ready to move. We're going to go through a process of analyzing exactly what we need to do, how many families are actually going to be affected, and what their actual needs are, because at the end of the day this is about placing families in safe environments, so that they can vibrant and we want them to be healthy. And I think that's the main concern. I don't think anyone disagrees with the Housing Authority in that regard about putting residents in better conditions.
SCHAFFERTyrone Garrett is the Executive Director of the D.C. Housing Authority. Rebecca Lindhurst, you are the Managing Attorney for Bread for the City, which works with low income residents. And you've had a chance to review this plan that Director Garrett has outlined. Do you think it's a viable plan for dealing with the housing needs of low income communities and the people you work with?
LINDHURSTI think our biggest concern is the number of units that could be lost through the process. As we all know public housing provides an unparalleled level of housing security. It's stable housing for D.C.'s most vulnerable residents. And we have been participants or observers of development and redevelopment throughout the city over the last two decades. And what we've seen is that communities have been destroyed through the redevelopment process. We also have cautionary tales of what's happened in other cities. So, for instance, in Chicago they redeveloped a significant portion of their public housing stock, and they still have vacant land 20 years later sitting with no residents occupying those properties.
LINDHURSTSo what we're most fearful of is creating a diaspora of public housing residents, who are spread throughout the city and losing the very important safety net and structures within their community, support structures. You know, churches, schools, if major portions of our public housing stock are demolished it disrupts communities. And, frankly, we are not convinced that's what rebuilt on those properties will be sufficient to handle the need of the residents, who are displaced.
SCHAFFERTyrone Garrett, are people going to be able to come back? Because what I hear Rebecca saying is that it's one thing to get a new apartment. But if you're taken out of the community where there's churches and friends and so on, you're losing important parts of your personal safety net.
LINDHURSTI can't dismiss the fact that there's going to be a lot of anxiety and in some cases residents will have to temporarily relocate. But our goal is to bring everyone back. That is the aspiration of the Housing Authority. What we want to do is we want to build up communities. We don't want to replace them.
SCHAFFERRebecca Lindhurst, what are you hearing from the people you work with?
LINDHURSTPeople are scared. They're really scared. And I think what we're seeing is people who are living in terrible conditions and we can't dismiss that. We know something has to be done. I've never lived in public housing. I don't know what it's like to put my baby to bed and find mouse feces in her crib, and these are the clients that we're talking to. But at the same time there has to be accountability. It's not saying I'm sorry, but it's how do I restore what was lost and that means replacement of every single unit at the same bedroom size with the absolute right to return for everybody.
LINDHURSTWe are, again, concerned that once people are displaced they don't come back. We've seen across the country only 14 to 18 percent of residents return to these projects. So it is the disruption of communities. People are scared and the best example in D.C. is what happened at Arthur Capper in Carrollsburg where there's now beautiful townhomes, a stadium, navy yard, all sorts of development, but that community is no longer the community of the residents that lived there 20 years ago. And so those tenants are still not back at Arthur Capper 20 years later.
SCHAFFERDo you have a sense of where they are?
LINDHURSTI can tell you about one particular client, one of my first clients when I moved here in 2002. She got a voucher. She had to move out of her multifamily building at Arthur Capper. She has been in multiple units with a voucher. She has lived with landlords, who have not taken care of their properties. She's struggled with her kids and safe schools, safe neighborhoods. And I think her life was entirely disrupted by the demolition of Arthur Capper and she has yet to be able to return.
SCHAFFERRene in Washington has been holding and has a comment.
RENEI'm glad the person raised Arthur Capper, because in 2001 the District received almost $35 million to revitalize Arthur Capper and they destroyed 707 public housing units. And were supposed to replace them one per one, but did not. Even as of 2014, Laura Putcher, a DCHA representative said, I quote, "One for one replacement may yet come. Declaring we're displacing the 707 public housing units over time." And basically she said that their 86 public housing, the few affordable homeownership units and everything in round terms, these are her words, million dollar townhouse. And this is Navy Yard.
RENEAnd so even when they open in 2016 the Bixby, which is a boutique building opened with only 39 of the 100 and, I think, 97 units for affordable. And that was at 40 percent of the area median income. The rents were $1800 to $3700 a month. What I'm saying is that they're displacing public housing level income people and they're not returning them. They need to take that down from their DHA website "One for one replacement," because it's false.
SCHAFFERLet me ask Tyrone Garrett, the Executive Director of the D.C. Housing Authority, how is this not going to happen again?
GARRETTThe pace, we have a new administration and I do admit in the past possibly it took too long. There was a long period of time between demolition of a property and the rebuilding of a property. But there's a transformation at our agency under my administration. We're taking clear steps to have a true plan and also lineup whatever funding sources that we need to create. The $35 million that was mentioned before, $35 million doesn't replace, you know, a thousand units. It just do it. You have to be able to leverage that money into other things. And what we're doing and looking at with our plan that we're going to be moving forward is how to leverage dollars that we do receive so that we can build out everything. And in the case of Arthur Capper we haven't finished. I totally understand and I understand the resident's concern about what has taken place, but it's our goal to replace those units over the next three to five years.
SCHAFFERAnd we'll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
SCHAFFERAnd welcome back. I'm Michael Schaffer from Washingtonian sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Today we're talking about the District government's plans to demolish or gut and renovate a third of the city's public housing units. And we're joined by Tyrone Garrett. He is the Executive Director of D.C.'s Housing Authority, and Rebecca Lindhurst. She's the Managing Attorney at Bread for the City, which is a front line agency serving D.C.'s low income residents. Linda in Chevy Chase has been holding. Linda, you're on the air.
LINDAHi. Yes, hello. Thank you for taking my call. I want to talk about Langston Terrace. That is historically and architecturally significant complex that seems to be on the demolition list, and I'd like to know why that is the case and urge you to move it to the restoration list.
GARRETTActually it is. I totally agree with you. We had the opportunity to look at it. So when we look at our list and when people look at it it's a combination of a lot of different things, where there might be a rehabilitation for stabilization purposes and also the opportunity to possibly redevelop or build new in some instances. So Langston, for example, probably falls and most likely will fall under something that's more along the lines of a rehabilitation than anything else. We considered that and we understand exactly how people feel about that particular property and its historical significance.
SCHAFFERYou know, that raises a question for me, though, which is, you know, if you look back at when public housing was first built, there was such optimism. And these places were depicted as a finally people get a chance to be out from under the heel of terrible landlords and so on. How did it get from there to here? And if you build new ones, how do we know it's not going to get back to there?
GARRETTWell, I think the whole idea and concept is that we know for one thing there is no relief coming from HUD. And that's how we got there. There was that diminished capital -- influx of capital that was put into our particular properties from the federal government. And Housing Authorities had to make due on nothing. And what we believe is with private equity we have requirements to go forward and to build new units or rehabilitate units that will allow for families to be in safe environments. We're championing on behalf of the residents. We realize and I recognize their need and what must happen to better their lives and improve the conditions of our residents who, as Rebecca said, are, you know, our most modest income residents throughout the District, and we want to work together with everyone to try to build this opportunity.
GARRETTWe see it as the glass being half full. And although people have some concerns about how it's going to move forward and people are going to be impacted, I can assure you that my administration is going to move with all the alacrity to ensure residents are treated with the upmost dignity and we preserve their rights to return.
SCHAFFERSo there are about 2600 families who are currently living in public housing units that are considered to be in extremely urgent conditions. What does that actually mean?
GARRETTWhat it means is that their units are suffering from hazards such as air quality, rodent infestation, infrastructure where there is water leakage that creates mold and mildew or there's sewer backups continuously at the property or in units. And for us, that's a safety hazard. That's a situation where families just can't live. I wouldn't want my mother to be there. I don't think anyone would want their parents or family members to live in conditions like this. So what we're doing is taking these first steps to try and get moving forward. The one thing that we cannot do is stand back and do nothing. And I think under my administration that's what we're attempting to do. Take steps forward.
SCHAFFERSo there's a tweet from concerned citizen. And here's what it says, "DCHA, are you looking creatively at options like tiny homes, recycled cargo containers, or other concepts? Will you have trees, resident roof gardens, solar power, and other innovative energy saving systems?"
GARRETTI can say we're going to have all those things except for the trailers. We're not going to do the cargo trailers. That is not something that we envision brining to D.C. We don't think that is a respectful way to house our residents. We believe that they deserve a lot more. I'm not sure about the tiny home piece, but everything else we're definitely going to incorporate into our planning process.
SCHAFFERRebecca Lindhurst, one of the things that has been talked about for residents, who are going to moved out of units that are being destroyed or gutted is vouchers. How do these things work; and what is problematic about them, because I know you've had a lot of concerns?
LINDHURSTWe have. So vouchers allow tenants to go out on the private market and negotiate with a private landlord. They use their voucher and pay 30 percent of their income toward the rent and then D.C. Housing Authority through a federal subsidy that's channeled through DCHA pays the remainder of the rent. Vouchers are problematic for many reasons. One is that they're capped. And, although D.C. has a higher cap on the amount you can spend with your voucher it still doesn't allow tenants to live in the most expensive areas of the city.
LINDHURSTSo historically vouchers, although were meant to desegregate communities really resulted in folks only being able to use them in lower rent markets. The other piece is that despite D.C. having some of the best protections for voucher holders in the country there's a source of income discrimination law that prevents landlords from discriminating against voucher holders.
LINDHURSTWe still see landlords who say, "I will not accept a voucher." And then even if landlords do say they'll accept a voucher there are lots of other hoops that tenants have to jump through that are difficult for lower income residents such as credit screening, criminal history screening. So we've seen tenants being told that they can't use their voucher at a particular property, because of a credit history issue or a misdemeanor that's, you know, more than seven years old. So it's very difficult for tenants to use vouchers in the city.
LINDHURSTThe other piece about voucher difficulty is that it's really hard to find units that are of larger size. So we're looking at lots of large families, who need three and four and five bedroom units, and those are extremely hard to find. Twenty-six percent of public housing units have three or more bedrooms.
LINDHURSTBut in contrast only 11 percent of all apartments in the city have more than three bedrooms. So it makes it particularly difficult for large household sizes to find a place.
LINDHURSTThe last piece of the voucher difficulty is folks with disabilities. It's extremely difficult to find accessible units with a voucher. So we've helped residents try and negotiate or try and navigate finding a place with their voucher and have hit hurdles all along the way. And so we are very fearful that we put, you know, 2600 vouchers on the street and the city just can't absorb that many vouchers. And so any plan which results in people having to use vouchers in the District is fraught with lots of difficulty.
SCHAFFERHoney in Washington is waiting on the line very patiently. Thanks for waiting. Hi, Honey.
HONEYHi. How are you? I'm a first time caller and longtime listener. I very much appreciate this opportunity to speak to the Affordable Housing problem, because quite frankly I'm so tired of the rhetoric. Seeing it printed. Seeing it spoken of. And it all becomes just a mass of hot wind blowing around. Why I say this is because I learned when my building, which is located near the cathedral underwent a purchase change. And in order for the company to buy it as most developers are doing now and DCHD is aware of this. And I forget what the name of the guy, who approves all of these applications is. But the City Council is well aware since about 10 to 15 years ago -- it was brought to their attention that there is this illegal process going on where the developers are bribing the current tenants with money to sign a particular application, which allows the developer to raise the rent to normal levels that are in their area.
HONEYOf course, this is a very destructive item. It also abuses the idea of what that application was for, which was the renters at that time wanted improvements of whatever nature and they agreed to suffer the burden of paying an increased rent. But that is not what's going on.
SCHAFFERWhat do you think?
GARRETTI can't necessarily speak directly to that question, because I think she's talking about a private market building and landlord. And what I can say is from the DCHA's perspective is that we're targeting anyone that is from 0 to 30 percent of AMI. That is our target population. Eighty-five percent of our residents who we house right now are our 0 to 30 percent of AMI with an average income of about $14,000 a year. So we're definitely dealing. The Housing Authority is with the most modest income residents within our community.
GARRETTOn the side about talking about the voucher use, I just wanted to say that the DCHA is -- because of our NTW Authority has been able to create submarkets throughout the District. And those submarkets allow us to go up to about 187 percent of the fair market rent that HUD has set as the marker. What that does for us is allows us to put residents in other areas where they normally would not be able to reside, because of the cost. But it also allows us the opportunity to deconcentrate poverty. And that is something that we thought was very innovative for us to be able to do because of our NTW Authority. But also what other Housing Authorities across the country have done too.
SCHAFFERSo if the idea is that people go out with vouchers for a couple of years or however long it takes and then be able to come back. We have a couple of emails that have said sort of versions of the same thing. One from QuakeU and from Michelle, which is would you be averse or would the city be averse to signing contracts either with the residents or with Bread for the City obliging you to have people come back to where they were.
GARRETTWell, actually what we do is with each application that we submit to HUD for approval to receive relocation vouchers or tenant protection vouchers, we have to create a relocation plan. And all of our relocation plans will clearly state that residents have the right to return.
LINDHURSTExcept that we have not seen that. We are currently representing a tenant, who is having trouble getting back in to one of the new buildings that was built in Navy Yard and we've tried to work with the Housing Authority. And she just can't get in. They keep looking at things that are not supposed to be considered with an absolute right to return. So if you have an absolute right to return there should be no screening whatsoever. There shouldn't be any criminal background checks. There shouldn't be any credit history checks. They should have the right to walk and in and not have to jump through any hoops to get back into those properties.
SCHAFFERDirector Garrett, is that kind of right we're talking about?
GARRETTWell, we're definitely looking at that and we also have helped people in the past in terms of credit issues with particular landlords. So the Housing Authority -- the Arthur Capper residents, who were impacted by the fires is an example of that where we created a mobility counseling team, who went out and sought landlords. And in some cases we provided security deposits or found other options for residents, who did not have credit -- who weren't necessarily quote on quote credit worthy. We found other possibilities for them in that same building in other ways to work with our landlords.
GARRETTThe last thing I want to say is that weren't not going to flood the market with 2600 vouchers all at one time. It is going to be a clear flow of vouchers throughout the next five to seven years that allow residents to relocate. Use their choice to find other units while we redevelop or stabilize their communities.
SCHAFFERWell, can you commit to that absolute right right now?
GARRETTYes, we can.
SCHAFFEROkay. We've been talking with Tyrone Garrett. He is the Executive Director of the D.C. Housing Authority and with Rebecca Lindhurst. She is Managing Attorney for --
GARRETTI need to go back on that.
GARRETTThe absolute right component -- when we talk about criminal background screening and different things like that we have to be very mindful and very careful of what we're talking about when we talk about absolute right. So I think Rebecca realizes and understands that, you know, in some instances and some cases a resident may not have the opportunity to come back, because of something that might have happened while they've been out. But everything is a case by case -- on a case by case basis. And we look at every resident individually when they have the opportunity to return.
LINDHURSTThat's exactly what we're talking about. Is that it needs to be an absolute right to return. Otherwise you've got people, who are in the wind who can't come back who have lost their stability, lost their community connection, lost their community supports. And, you know, it only increases the possibilities that these people remain unstably housed throughout their lifetime.
SCHAFFERRebecca Lindhurst is Managing Attorney for Bread for the City, which is a frontline agency serving D.C.'s low income residents. Coming up after the break we'll be talking about women and punk music history in D.C. You're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Michael Schaffer sitting in for Kojo.
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