by Marlene Berlin
Tawana Holland of DC’s Department of Human Services told a December 16th meeting on the subject of increased emergency calls to Van Ness-area apartment buildings that many residents, upon receiving a rental subsidy, choose this neighborhood because “there have been other places in the city where they have been traumatized for many, many years. And when they get a voucher they want to have a better life, they want to go to a neighborhood that they perceive will be safer and will be more welcoming to them. ”
Some who come here find their safety is not guaranteed.
MPD Second District Lieutenant Stephen Amodeo reported at the May 17th ANC meeting that the Office of the Attorney General has accepted MPD’s referral of three Van Ness apartment buildings to OAG’s nuisance properties division. 3003 Van Ness and the Chesapeake and Saratoga apartments potentially face lawsuits and penalties over landlords’ alleged unwillingness to address security issues.
Still under OAG consideration are MPD’s referrals of 3002 Rodman, where a man was fatally stabbed on May 4th, and Connecticut House, where on April 21st, a woman fleeing her alleged attacker jumped from an eighth floor apartment. Amodeo said the woman, who survived the fall, remains hospitalized.
People who know both victims said their apartments were rented through vouchers. The number of voucher renters in Ward 3 has increased since 2017, when Mayor Bowser added a subsidy to HUD-calculated fair market rates so vouchers would cover rents in more DC apartment buildings.
The newcomers are welcome here. But some are recently homeless and have behavioral health issues exacerbated by their lives on the street, and they struggle to adjust. Some have children that they struggle to care for. Some are targets of assault, robbery, and worse. They need additional, long-term support beyond a place to live. And while DC agencies say they are providing these services, reports from tenant leaders and other residents suggest otherwise.
They tell me of stabbings and other violent crime behind closed doors. Of children wandering at all hours, knocking on doors to beg for money or food. Of children, left to fend for themselves, starting kitchen fires. Of people yelling and screaming all night. Of trash dumped in hallways instead of being properly disposed of. Of dogs allowed to relieve themselves in public spaces.
At Connecticut House, police found an illegal high-capacity firearm in the apartment from which the woman had jumped. Shortly after that, a tenant organizer told me she overheard two fellow residents, also voucher holders, talking about the incident. One told the other that she was thinking of moving out. She thought the building had become too dangerous.
Who in their right mind would not demand a fix?
Representatives from DC agencies have long denied there are any problems. They’ve admonished the critics of housing vouchers and support services, explaining away the complaints as white residents’ discomfort with the newcomers.
The complaints are in fact coming from people of all races, from people with housing vouchers and without, from longtime residents and newer arrivals. Something has changed. And at long last, someone in Mayor Bowser’s administration admitted as much. At the April ANC 3F meeting, Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart spoke of visiting 20 apartment buildings, spread throughout the District, with similar issues. He talked about support services promised but not provided, and of landlord incentives that made voucher holders more lucrative, “creating de facto public housing” in one building, which now demands a high level of emergency resources. Geldart said the current system “ain’t working,” and that he was working with the heads of agencies and the Office of the Attorney General on solutions.
Tenant leaders need to be included in this conversation. In some buildings, they’ve succeeded in working with landlords and the police to improve safety and conditions in their homes, and they have an on-the-ground perspective of what works, and what does not. Tenant leaders from apartment buildings along Connecticut Avenue have banded together to talk to candidates and office holders about these issues. They have asked Mayor Bowser to speak with them too. She has not responded to their request.
Let’s stop accusing each other of racism when there is a real problem we need to confront. The mayor’s voucher system, put in place without adequate follow-up and services for recipients, has created safety issues and worsened living conditions in apartments throughout the District, not just Van Ness.
Mayor Bowser, we need you to make this right. A crucial step is sitting down with tenant leaders.