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A recently announced plan to redevelop 14 public housing developments in the District could be great news for tenants living in inhumane conditions — but the current plan could actually end up making things even worse for them. The outcome depends on many decisions that policymakers will make over how the redevelopment will be implemented, and whether the primary focus will be on people instead of bricks, mortar and money. Public housing developments provide affordable housing to thousands of DC residents struggling to make ends meet and pay rent. 

There is no question that the proposed sites need to be replaced. Following decades of under-investment in the nation’s public housing stock, many DC Housing Authority (DCHA) properties would be considered uninhabitable except for the fact that they have people living in them. The conditions are so unhealthy given insect infestations, mold, sewage leaks, and other conditions that they put residents’ lives at risk, according to several East of the River and Hill Rag articles.

Yet, it’s no slam dunk that tearing down and rebuilding these sites will help all tenants and improve their quality of life. Across the nation, including DC, there is a long history of public housing developments that scatter intact communities to the wind, take forever to redevelop, fail to replace all the units, and result in only a fraction of residents coming back to the newly built sites.

This risk is very real in the current plan. When analyzing 12 out of the 14 properties for which DCHA has shared data, DCHA’s proposal would result in 355 fewer units that are affordable to low-income households and would not replace all the affordable units with three or more bedrooms. The plan could involve partnerships with private developers who may use credit checks and other tools to keep some residents from coming back because tenants have fewer protections after certain types of conversions. 

Getting this right is important for the affected families and for all of us. Ensuring that DC continues to provide low-barrier housing to people living with low income is a matter of racial justice, disability justice and making sure that our seniors can age in place. It should be important to anyone who cares about maintaining economic and racial diversity in DC.

A group of organizations, including the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, developed a set of guidelines that we think DCHA should follow to ensure that redeveloping public housing actually makes life better for residents living in public housing and who are at risk of displacement. This column draws on that letter.

Who lives in Public Housing?

DC’s public housing stock is a key source of stable, affordable housing for low-income households. Most households living in public housing are headed by a senior or person with disabilities, and nearly one-third have children. About two-thirds rely on Social Security or disability benefits for the main source of income, while 20 percent get their income primarily from wages, and 10 percent get most of their income from TANF or other cash assistance. The average income of households living in public housing is just $16,000 for a family of four.

Guarantee a Right to Return

Every public housing resident who moves during redevelopment of their home should have the absolute right to return. In the past, DCHA promises have not been kept, with tenants refused entry by new, private owners and managers who want to rent to the most “desirable” public housing residents. To make sure all tenants have the right to return to redeveloped properties, DCHA should use the same screening process that it normally uses for any other public housing unit. In particular, no one should be refused return due to a prior debt to DCHA, a credit screen, a drug test, or a criminal record (other than those that result in automatic denial under federal law). This can best be accomplished by requiring that DCHA retains a controlling interest in all the redevelopments, rather than turning them over to private managers or owners. 

One for One Replacement

Public housing is the last bastion of affordable housing in an increasingly gentrified city. The DCHA redevelopment plan should replace every unit of deeply affordable housing, including apartments for large families. Yet out of the gate, the DCHA plan fails this test. There are 2,067 public housing units in 12 properties for which DCHA has shared data, but the plan only accounts for rebuilding/rehabbing 1,712 affordable units. The loss of 355 units affordable to low-income households—making under 50 percent of the area median income, or $60,650 for a family of four—would be greatest for 5+ bedroom units and 3-bedroom units.

This plan should not go forward unless DCHA can ensure, at a minimum, that it will replace all deeply affordable units, by unit size, and keep them deeply affordable in perpetuity.

Require New Housing Be Built First to Limit Community Displacement

Redevelopment means that families must be displaced temporarily. If this is not managed well, it will have traumatic effects on public housing residents and communities that are already financially vulnerable. Displacement can increase commute time to work or limit access to public transportation necessary to get to work, jeopardizing jobs. High school-aged children forced to relocate are more likely to drop out of school. Senior residents and individuals who secure housing in a different neighborhood may lose access to caretakers and if a redevelopment takes years and years, a supportive public housing community can be largely destroyed.

The best way to avoid this is to commit to a “build first” approach. This means that whenever possible, new buildings will be built on site or nearby before anyone is asked to leave their home, allowing residents to stay in their community. If displacement is unavoidable in some cases, DCHA should limit the amount of time tenants may be away from their communities by delaying forced relocation until actual demolition is imminent.

DCHA Should Engage Tenants As Real Partners

Residents living in public housing know the problems in their communities, the solutions, and their own needs. They should play an active role in the redevelopment of their communities. There is a strong model for resident engagement in DC used when tenants exercise their rights through the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. Through this process, residents, acting through a tenant association, express their needs, provide recommendations, and engage in decision-making with the understanding that time and money are limited.

DCHA should give tenants, via any existing Resident Organization, the right to purchase their housing when redevelopment is proposed. Even if tenants are not able to buy, this would allow resident councils to become a development partner. Rather than simply being consulted, tenants would be active decision-makers on issues like minimizing displacement, more jobs going to community members, and shared-equity/ homeownership opportunities.

Ed Lazere is the Executive Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org). DCFPI promotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in the District of Columbia and increase opportunities for residents to build a better future. 

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