Disabled DC residents have long faced housing frustrations

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For a veteran who is an amputee the wait to get out of a two-bedroom rodent-infested home and into a smaller place that meets his needs has taken years.

Years that have seen his family move out because they couldn’t take living with the rats.

Years that have seen his doctors express concern that his living conditions are affecting his health.

Years that have seen him pay his rent regularly on time for a place he wants desperately to leave.

“He belongs in a safe, habitable unit,” said Melanie A. Acuña, a senior attorney with Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which offers free legal aid to low-income D.C. residents over the age of 60.

Acuña described the veteran as languishing on a waitlist with other disabled D.C. residents who rely on the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) for their housing. She said the veteran received approval from DCHA three years ago to transfer from his current unit to one that could accommodate his needs, but he has no idea when that move might come.

Acuña could not tell me the veteran’s name out of respect for his privacy, but she shared with me the details of his needs. She also told the D.C. Council about him earlier this year in testimony for an oversight hearing about the agency, which serves low-income residents in the city.

“The one thing that remains consistent at DCHA is the lack of consistency created by the high rate of turnover, unresponsiveness, and failure to follow through on requests in a timely manner,” Acuña said in her testimony. “Unfortunately, it is the District residents that need the most assistance who are unfairly impacted by the lack of accountability.”

Earlier this month, the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) filed a lawsuit against DCHA, claiming that the agency has been “engaging in a pattern or practice of disability discrimination that violates the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.”

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The civil complaint, filed in the District’s Superior Court, says DCHA has “utterly failed” its obligation as a landlord to provide reasonable accommodations to tenants with disabilities.

“Instead, Defendant’s tenants are forced to wait years — sometimes more than a decade — for housing that meets their needs, even long after the Authority itself has deemed the accommodation reasonable and necessary,” the complaint reads. “The unconscionable delays tenants face violate District law and harm those District residents.”

The complaint details several disturbing cases, including one involving a wheelchair-user who was housed on the fourth floor of an apartment building without an elevator. The woman was forced to rely on others to carry her up and down those flights of stairs each time she needed to go somewhere. The complaint says she was approved for a wheelchair-accessible unit in January 2017 and was told months later that she was at the top of the waitlist. She died in 2021, still waiting.

“DCHA is a significant landlord in the District of Columbia,” Racine said Wednesday in response to a request for comment. “As such, it must abide by all laws and provide tenants with disabilities necessary accommodations. Their failure to do so required our office to step in.”

The allegations in the complaint are disturbing but they are not surprising to advocates and lawyers who have long been trying to help low-income residents with disabilities access safe and appropriate housing through DCHA. In the days since the lawsuit was filed, I have spoken with several of them — some off the record and some on the record — and they describe unsettling situations involving the city’s most vulnerable residents.

They tell of adults with documented disabilities who have faced long agonizing waits for housing, unable to move out of their current units and into ones that would meet their needs. They tell of frustrating efforts to improve the housing situations of children who have grown so sick from mold and rodent infestations that their pediatricians have determined their homes are harming them. They tell of residents who have no choice but to go along with a frustrating process and make do with what they are given, even when it’s detrimental to their well-being, because they have no place else to go.

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In response to a request for comment, Sheila Lewis, a spokesperson for DCHA, said on Wednesday that the “D.C. Attorney General has not served the complaint to the D.C. Housing Authority so we are unable to respond to the investigation or individual allegations.”

The truth is that the best response DCHA could provide to the complaint wouldn’t come in the form of words. It would come in the form of actions. Advocates I spoke to expressed hope that agency officials are listening, looking for ways to improve and won’t wait until the lawsuit plays out in court to start making changes. After all, the lawsuit may be new, but the issues it raises are not.

Three years ago, I stood in a Northeast Washington home and watched Erica Chance carry her 5-year-old son, Ayden, up and down the stairs of their two-story unit. Ayden’s cerebral palsy had left him unable to walk on his own and, at the time, the family was desperate for a place that could accommodate his wheelchair and fit a bed that was being specially made for him because his seizures sometimes caused him to fall out of his plastic Paw Patrol bed.

The long wait: For years, she’s been hoping to move into a house that will meet her son’s disability needs.

Chance cried as she talked about how her family had long waited to move, despite receiving approval from DCHA for a transfer when Ayden was 2. “I’m not even on the chart for no hope because I’ve been waiting this long,” she said at the time.

Evan Cass, a lawyer with the Children’s Law Center, had been working with Chance to help her family, and he said after that column ran, she received housing that met her family’s needs. He also said her case is just one of the many he and other attorneys at the Children’s Law Center have handled involving DCHA. Pediatricians throughout the city regularly refer cases to them involving children who have asthma or other health conditions that have been caused or exacerbated by their living conditions.

Cass said the Attorney General’s lawsuit has left him hopeful for broad changes that would help families.

“I’m hopeful for transparency. I’m hopeful for speedier accommodations for families who need them. I’m hopeful for long-term planning,” he said.

He’s hopeful that fewer families will need a lawyer like him to fight for them.

“We can’t keep playing whack-a-mole with these issues,” he said.

Acuña said one of the people the Legal Counsel for the Elderly has been helping is a woman who has high blood pressure, diabetes, degenerative joint disease, a brain tumor, a Baker’s cyst in her legs, and requires oxygen because she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Acuña said the woman applied for housing through the DCHA in 2002 and again in 2008 and has been on the waitlist since then. In 2019, the Legal Counsel for the Elderly got involved, checked that her name was on the waitlist and made a reasonable-accommodation request on her behalf.

That woman, Acuña said, still does not have housing through the agency. She also doesn’t know how much longer she will have to wait.

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