In D.C., a public-housing waiting list with no end

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 11, 2013

“I’ve been on the list since 1998.”

“I got on that list when my son was in my stomach. He’s 11 now.”

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“I’ve been on it for 26 years.”

The list? It’s for public housing — you know, the place you imagine everyone is trying to get out of? In the nation’s capital, it’s the place few can ever get into.

Those waiting for public housing in D.C. have become parents, they’ve become grandparents, they’ve had jobs, lost jobs, moved into nice apartments, been kicked out of bad ones. Some have even died while waiting, waiting, waiting for a place.

The list is absurd, with more than 70,000 people waiting for one of 8,000 units. The oldest application was made when a gallon of gas cost 91 cents and Ronald Reagan was president.

The average wait for a studio apartment is 39 years. If you need one bedroom, you’re a bit luckier — that will take only 28 years, according to a report about the housing list issued by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General last month.

For the first time, that ridiculous waiting list closes on Friday. No new applicants. The D.C. Housing Authority plans to re-engineer and prune the list in an effort to make it more manageable and effective.

Meanwhile, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) offered some hope with a $100 million affordable housing plan, pledging to create or preserve 10,000 places to live for the elderly, the disabled and the working class. Only thing is, the plan calls for units to be built by 2020. There are lots of folks who need affordable housing right now.

Kim Jones is one of them. She made one last trip to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center this week, a day before the public housing list is officially closed, to check on her spot.

She’s the one who got on the list when she was pregnant. Eleven years later, her son is about two inches taller than she is. He joined her on the disheartening trek to the housing office, which recently moved to a part of town developers are calling NoMa. Here, they get off the Metro and can walk past brand-new apartment buildings with dry-cleaning valets, maple floors and Italian kitchen cabinets.

All this amid a housing crisis.

“I just wanted to see where we stood on the list,” Jones, 33, explained. She recently was fired from her job in a hospital maintenance department. She’s trying to go back into retail, but lots of stores aren’t hiring. And she wants to stay in the city, where she is close to jobs, family and the school where her son is doing well.

“Now I just go to see if they can get me into a shelter. ’Cause right now, we’re on the streets,” she said.

This is part of the reason there have been as many as 600 kids crammed inside the family homeless shelter at D.C. General, an abandoned hospital.

With the average rent in the city $1,759 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, it is just about impossible to have a working-class salary and stay anywhere near your job. Consider that when your Starbucks barista, who is paid around $9 an hour, messes up your tall, skinny, vanilla half-caf.

In all of the city’s giddy growth and $417 million in budget-surplus prosperity, we’ve completely forgotten to consider the housing needs of the workers who make this place run.

The number of rentals that are less than $750 a month fell from 70,600 to 34,500 over the past decade, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Meanwhile, the places that cost more than $1,500 tripled.

Getting off that list and into public housing means you’ll pay a modest percentage of your income to the Housing Authority.

“I grew up here and I want my son to stay in my city, to grow up in his city, near family,” said Reginald Price, a single dad who works at a warehouse and has been on the housing list since 1998.

His son was 2 when he applied to get a place of his own. Meanwhile, he moved back into his mom’s apartment. And there he stayed for 15 years, sharing a room with his growing son.

“He wants to go to college, to Ohio State. I wish he could know what it's like to have his own room before he goes to college,” Price said. “We’re like roommates, instead of father and son, sharing a room all these years.”

One of the drawbacks of the waiting list is the creation of false hope. Price and Jones have casually looked for other places, but they keep hoping that somehow their public housing will come through.

But where else can they find hope? Jubilee Housing, a faith-based nonprofit group that has renovated and rented more than 200 affordable housing units in Adams-Morgan, has been a refuge for some folks stuck on the list.

When it recently announced that 25 units would be available for rent in a building on Euclid Street, more than 100 families lined up the night before they began accepting applications. They slept outside, then were joined by a couple hundred more in the morning.

“We ended up with our own list,” said Jim Knight, executive director of Jubilee Housing.

“The worst part of this crisis is that for every number on the wait list, there is a mother or father, a son or daughter who is living in substandard conditions,” Knight said. “They are literally being cut off from the support and stability that is needed to thrive in life. We have to ask ourselves what kind of city we want to be.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak

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