In D.C., Trying to Curb 10-Year Wait for Housing

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On a crisp spring day, Ron Morgan walked into the D.C. Housing Authority, desperate, almost homeless and hoping to find a place to live with an affordable monthly rent. His name was placed on a list for a rent subsidy voucher and he was told to wait.

Morgan lost his low-paying job and waited. He was kicked out of an apartment but kept waiting. He slept on his sisters' couches and floors and waited some more. Finally, after moving in and out of shelters and finding a bed in a Single Room Occupancy program, Morgan was contacted by the authority and given a voucher -- 10 years after applying.

"It's kind of discouraging when you're on that wait list," Morgan, 47, said recently. He moved into his apartment about this time last year. "I thought I was lost in the system. When they tell you there are thousands and thousands of names, you wonder, 'Who are you but a number?' "

The almost decade-long wait for affordable housing is a cold reality for District residents who turn to the Housing Authority when they can no longer pay the city's high rents on their meager salaries.

As winter bears down and the economy sinks deeper into a recession, more than 25,000 families -- or about 62,000 individuals, almost one in 10 D.C. residents -- are on the authority's waiting list, according to housing officials' estimates. The number does not include chronically homeless men and women who are fast-tracked into housing by the authority and who are served by a special District government initiative called Housing First, which sought to place 400 homeless people in housing when it was announced in April.

Until last year, the Housing Authority waiting list was more than double, but at the urging of D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), the agency contacted applicants to confirm eligibility and whether they still needed a home.

Today the council is set to vote on a bill Barry submitted in July called the Waiting List Elimination Bill of 2008 to try to put every applicant into a home within two years.

Housing officials understand the urgency and the strain.

Michael Kelly, the Housing Authority's executive director, said the overwhelming demand for an apartment in the 8,000-unit public housing system or the 12,000 housing vouchers that subsidize private apartment rents "far outstrips our resources." Another housing official compared the area to other expensive cities such as San Francisco and New York, adding that without a housing subsidy the working poor, many of the elderly and the disabled can't afford to live here.

Adrianne Todman, the Housing Authority's deputy executive director, said applicants face tough choices as they wait: " 'Do I eat today? Do I pay utilities this month? I'm definitely not going to get fresh fruits and vegetables for my kids.' "

But Todman said Barry's proposal, which she calculates at $15,000 per housing unit, seems unrealistic. "Do we want to house them all? Absolutely. Can we? No. We don't have enough money to do that," she said.

Financial specialists generally describe affordable housing as costing about a third of an individual's wages. About 35,000 units are designated as affordable for low-income residents, according to an advocacy group that cited census data. Elsewhere in the city, the average rent payment is more than $2,000, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. About 46,000 people devote more than half of their salaries to pay rent, the survey said.

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