DC Housing Authority Behind Policy Violence and Public Health Crises in Southwest

The DC Housing Authority held its final listening session on ‎Thursday, ‎May ‎18 at the King-Greenleaf Recreation Center in Southwest. DC Council required the Stabilization and Reform Board to conduct listening sessions with public housing residents throughout the city as part of a December law reforming the agency's board. The event featured remarks from a panel of Southwest resident council presidents, followed by public testimonies from more than a dozen residents. With few exceptions, all of those who testified were Black women. Their experiences living in poor conditions are best understood as gender and racial policy violence against women and families. Through their tears and justified anger at times, the public health consequences of DCHA's longstanding dysfunction as the city's largest landlord and most notorious slumlord came into full view.

This issue highlights residents' testimonies, then makes the case that the DC Housing Authority is beyond repair. DCHA Director Brenda Donald's position that the agency cannot accept further funding for repairs and abatement and her subsequent conduct on Twitter strongly signal that full federal intervention and receivership are warranted. Despite residents' complaints and likely legally cognizable injuries due to property neglect, Director Donald vigorously defended her position of no new funding in an interview with Southwest Voice. Her position had been previously reported in other local news media. This paper asked, "You all are saying that you cannot spend more money for housing repairs. Given the issues today, doesn't it really make sense to accept that money?" Much of her response blamed DC Council, "Do you want to talk to the Council? The Council has put in provisions that make the Housing Authority, an independent authority, come to the Council for all contracts over one million dollars, even if we pay for it with federal money." She says that Council is slow to act on these requests. This paper's response was that the basic maintenance needs do not amount to million-dollar contracts sufficient to refuse additional funds.

The challenges facing DCHA is not a simple matter of bringing buildings up to code. From plans to displace Southwest residents to hospitalizations associated with environmental hazards and lack of emergency protocols, the deep rot in the agency tests Council oversight capacity and its political will to ensure DCHA performance. Anonymous sources tell Southwest Voice that HUD may also lack the political will to exercise its authority due to loyalties among senior HUD officials to the DC mayor and potential political ramifications. If HUD fails to act, it will demonstrate a deeply broken system that is incapable of enforcing existing laws to protect the welfare of residents in public housing.

Resident Leadership

Patricia Bishop, President of the Greenleaf Family Midrise Resident Council, began the listening session. "Stop making decisions that are going to hurt people then we will smile and rejoice to know that we have the same as everyone else." Mrs. Bishop has not only had to contend with poor housing conditions due to poor air quality, air particulates, and abatement issues impacting her physical and mental health, but also has directed DCHA staff and contractors to ventilate when applying highly industrial chemicals during renovation. In her role as president, she has been forced to stay on top of DCHA to follow through with residents' maintenance requests and re-housing needs. We previously reported that Mrs. Bishop had concerns about the psychological warfare against public housing residents by using commercial paint colors associated with institutionalized populations for use throughout her residential building.

Dena Walker, President of Greenleaf Gardens Extension and Additions, spoke next and began with her concerns about Greenleaf redevelopment. The threat of displacement and plans for mostly market rate units without a written no-displacement agreement are a source of stress for her and Greenleaf residents. Last year, the DCHA Board approved plans to redevelop Greenleaf. That action was prior to the agency receiving the scathing HUD report but has not kept the agency from moving forward. Its proposed FY24 annual plan anticipates a RAD/Section 18 application for Greenleaf Senior (211 units) and a demolition and/or disposition application for the remainder of the site. Mrs. Walker criticized Greenleaf redevelopment plans due to multiple concerns, "One of my priorities right now is to have the Build First put back on the table. If not that, then redo the Greenleaf co-development RFP (request for proposals). What that means is that it takes it back to the table. We still do not have a formalized agreement for the right to return. That should not be. The co-development team should have had land for Build First. They do not have the land. That's why it's going to take forever. Residents are very concerned and worried." DCHA is promising one-for-one replacement in Greenleaf, but as the HUD report pointed out, "PHA (is) not practicing one for one replacement of public housing units as promised. Market rate and LIHTC units are being planned for the redeveloped properties, reducing the number of public housing units." The agency has also never delivered on a Build First promise.

Mrs. Walker remarked on DCHA's current plans to downsize residents. "Where are you going to put the residents that you are downsizing? No one is saying what is going to happen with that." She is alluding to the potential for displacement out of Southwest if no accommodation is available. She continued with another point, "I want to request that we place current residents in remodeled units and not move new residents before current residents. A lot of residents are living in terrible conditions. They have been complaining forever and nothing is done. We have people with rodents. I have a tenant who has been complaining about this since March. We have 30 vacant units in Greenleaf Gardens."

Mrs. Walker followed up after the meeting with an advocacy letter to DCHA senior officials on May 22 explaining, "By the way, the unit 1110 next to Ms. [redacted] is infested with rats, roaches, flying cockroaches and bed bugs which have now moved to her unit. No one lives there (in the vacant unit next door), so the infestations are becoming more deplorable for Ms. [redacted]."

Rhonda Hamilton, President of Syphax Gardens Resident Council and ANC6D Commissioner, began, "This is my single member district. I first want to say that this is hard for me to be here because I have more questions than answers. I think it would be better for those who have the answers to be sitting at the table. I am here to listen to you all because we, as leaders, do a lot of advocating and attend meetings, but what I am not seeing is a lot of results from those meetings. I am not seeing a lot of changes in the quality of life for our residents. We deserve more help than what we are getting in terms of the living conditions - the rats, the roaches, the mold." Commissioner Hamilton continued, "The hope is that when the session is over that all of the concerns that we bring up are addressed. One of the issues that I see on my property is that we don't see a lot of money for upkeep and maintenance."

Once again, Commissioner Hamilton and others want the see the housing authority change. Faith in DCHA's turnaround is likely misplaced. Earlier, a DCHA Board member encouraged meeting attendees to look past the agency's poor record, "We got to move forward. If we keep going back into the past saying what is going to happen, what's not going to happen...we all fail." As this paper reported in December 2022, the aftermath of the public release of HUD's scathing report failed to catalyze DCHA to improve its emergency response protocol. We reported that a resident waited at least 6 hours after reporting flooding throughout her apartment. The ticketing system, much less adequate follow-up, continues to fail residents experiencing emergencies.

Resident Testimonies

"There has been mold and mildew growing in the walls. There was a gas leak in my house. My 11-year-old started having seizures when I moved into the home. If you expect the rats and roaches to go away, you have to replace the cabinets when you turnover a new unit," explained a Greenleaf Gardens resident. "Even though we have dust problems, the HEPA devices that they gave us are not working. I don't see anything that has changed for the better." This resident continued her complaints about lax enforcement of noise, building cleaning, and non-resident entry despite her increased rent. Greenleaf Senior resident Linda Brown questioned the adequacy of repairs and implied vast wasteful spending, "If you actually deal with the problem, we are having the same repairs over and over again. Deal with the problem." 

"We had mold and mushrooms growing (from an upstairs water leak). We had walls crumbling. Til this day, I have piles of sand in different places in my home because they never came out to fix it. I talk to person after person, then they finally told me that they would move me to a hotel and fix all of my walls. There is no accountability. There is no integrity," a resident recounted that she still lives in poor conditions. 

A retired nurse living in Greenleaf Senior lamented, "The condition of the building needs to be worked on. You are keeping us hostage in a building that is not good. You have the trash room. We are living like animals. We are human. It's not right. People worked too - all their lives. I worked in nursing for 30 years and this is the way that I am being treated. Stop putting us down and stepping over us. We are humans just like you all are."

"There are so many issues, as Mrs. Dena (Walker) said. There have to be formal agreements for people who have been here all of their lives to come back here after this redevelopment," explained a resident from Greenleaf Gardens, who became visibly emotional and speechless. Encouraged by the applause, she told her story, "I grew up in public housing all of my life. My momma raised me. I have people tell me that because I came from public housing that I wasn't going to be anything. They saw neglect from the city. How are you guys going to change that?"

Further Evidence of Harm and Neglect

Subsequent to our meeting, this paper was informed that residents in public housing in Southwest experienced a 12-hour blackout - no electricity. In the Greenleaf Senior building, the only functioning elevator stopped working on Mother's Day of this year. The other elevator was out-of-service for repair. A first-person account shared that seniors and their family members had to climb up to eight floors. Although we have not verified, our source said that a senior fell during her climb on the fourth floor and had to be taken to the hospital. That resident had surgery several days ago according to the source.

Director Brenda Donald's Twitter Conduct

Following this paper's tweet that Director Donald insists on no new funding for repairs because of Council provisions that they approve funding for contracts that exceed a million dollars or more, she first tweeted, "Reported by someone who knows nothing about running an agency". In our interview immediately after the meeting, she claimed that the months-long lag between Board and Council approvals of contracts was a hinderance to effectively spending public funds. In other words, it was not a controversial position in that she had already gone public with her position and that she had reiterated her position. Another petty tweet followed, "Why don’t you do your homework so you can see how much we already have invested in property repairs? Real reporters do the work, not lazy gotcha games," after another Southwest Voice tweet reminded her that the Office of Attorney General had basically sought to end ghettoization practices wherein it was "neglecting to make necessary security improvements to protect residents from persistent drug- and firearm-related activity at ten public housing properties." This Southwest Voice tweet was too an uncontroversial position.

Director Donald announced in early May that she intended to depart the agency before the end of her contract. While her pot-shots at Southwest Voice are baseless and ad hominem, this paper is most concerned about the health and well-being of public housing residents in Southwest and throughout the city. The harm is clear and unassailable. DCHA has not sufficiently mobilized resources and efficiencies to address the vast needs. The policy violence leveled against Black women and families, in particular, in public housing is tolerated at all levels of government - both District and federal. In fact, Black officials' central role in this harm raises profound questions about the relevance of race and forebodes no major change in racial inequity. If this is how Black families are treated in what is left of "Chocolate City," the work against racism is far more arduous than anyone has anticipated.