Pam Reeves signed up for the D.C. Housing Authority’s (DCHA) voucher program in 1995 when she moved from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. with her three sons. She did not receive any further information until 15 years later, when her name appeared on the program list and DCHA contacted her. She was told she was called by accident, and by that time, Reeves had found housing on her own.
Decades later, Reeves’ niece is now hoping to have better luck under DCHA’s new streamlined initiatives.
DCHA held an affordable housing eligibility event on Feb. 3, the second such event this year. They’re part of DCHA’s recent efforts to clear its 20,000-person affordable housing waitlist, which has not accepted applications in nearly 10 years.
The DCHA events, hosted at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, are designed to help applicants determine their eligibility for affordable housing—a prerequisite for being matched with available housing units.
“This is the first time we’ve heard of that the Housing Authority has done anything like this,” Rachel Joseph, DCHA’s chief operating officer, said of the first event on Jan. 6. Over 5,000 applicants were invited via letters, robocalls, and non-transferable email invites; over 600 individuals attended.
For D.C. residents in need of affordable, safe housing, the backlogged waitlist and deteriorating public housing units have contributed to long-standing problems. Many have been either displaced or forced to put up with unclean, dangerous conditions as the Housing Authority has stalled in adequately addressing their needs.
Around 2,500 applicants were invited to the eligibility event on Feb. 3, according to Raymond Skinner, chairman of the Stabilization and Reform (STAR) Board of Commissioners. This time around, 225 families attended and worked with DCHA staff to submit the paperwork necessary for determining affordable housing eligibility.
Joseph said that invitations are applicant-specific, so those who have not updated the contact information they provided DCHA may not be contacted by them about the event. She said that DCHA will be having another event for these individuals, and the agency encouraged applicants to update their contact information.
Skinner said that applicants who are nonresponsive to DCHA outreach using on-file contact information are removed from the waitlist so that the agency can move on to housing others.
Joseph also noted that some attended the event after hearing about it elsewhere, such as Facebook, even if the DCHA did not specifically reach out to them.
One attendee of the Feb. 3 eligibility event, who spoke with the Voice on the condition of anonymity, said that he had been on the waitlist for over a decade. He joined the waitlist when he was 19; now, attending the event at 31 after hearing about it through a family member, he hoped to receive a voucher due to rent increases in D.C. and the additional costs his family expects from having their second child.
When he checked his eligibility at Friday’s event, however, he was told his name could not be found on the DCHA housing waitlist. “They said I might still receive something in the mail, but when the lady just looked on the government [website] she said she don’t even see my name in the system,” he said.
Following a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) audit issued in Oct. 2022 that criticized DCHA’s management and maintenance of public housing units, the D.C. City Council passed legislation replacing the previous 13-person board with the temporary nine-person STAR Board in place today. According to Skinner, the new board is made up of members with specific expertise relevant to new legislation and contrasts with DCHA’s previous Board of Commissioners, which was too caught up in “day-to-day” operational matters.
Skinner said a plan is in place to hold the agency accountable for correcting the HUD report’s highlighted deficiencies, which include “updating policies, developing new systems and programs, training staff, and implementing new technologies.” He anticipates the board’s biggest challenge will be restoring DCHA’s reputation in the D.C. community.
DCHA’s upcoming priorities also include increasing occupancy rates for their housing units and conducting preventative maintenance while managing redevelopment efforts.
The Housing Authority published an Admissions and Continued Occupancy Plan (ACOP) and an Administrative Plan for public comment on Feb. 14. These plans govern the city’s public housing operations and the housing choice voucher programs that place residents in private housing units, respectively. Once the STAR Board approves the new ACOP, DCHA will move toward implementing separate, site-based waitlists for their 56 public housing properties. Currently, DCHA has one waitlist for all of its public housing. “When our waiting lists are reopened, applicants will select sites they qualify for based on their personal preferences and buildings that have units that meet their family size,” Skinner said.
Skinner is optimistic the new waiting list plan will reduce the time it takes to fill housing units, reducing the likelihood of a backlogged waitlist in the future. The current housing waitlist, however, must be cleared before this new process is operationalized.
In the meantime, residents are as hopeful as they can be that the historically flawed Housing Authority will meet their needs.
Reeves’ niece worked with DCHA staff to complete the intake process during the eligibility event on Feb. 3, hoping her family could move to a larger housing unit in a safer area. “She’s in a two-bedroom, she has four kids,” Reeves said. “She just don’t want to be there anymore.”
One attendee was told to keep checking the website for when the waitlist reopens. “I was on the list in 2012,” the attendee who spoke with the Voice on Feb. 3 said. “It could be another [few years]. Why keep waiting?”
Skinner anticipates that there will be at least two more events for those who remain on the affordable housing waitlist. But if the District does not adequately address its affordable housing issues, residents who are able to may leave the city.
“Nobody really gets a place so it’s kinda hard in this city to do anything, even if you have a good job,” the attendee said. “Hopefully this helps us out but if anything, we was already thinking about moving from D.C.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to distinguish DCHA’s STAR Board (currently in place) from the Board of Commissioners (previously in place).