At the edge of the football field at Benning Terrace’s recreation center, the District’s new Housing Authority director squinted up toward the towering floodlights. She smiled as someone from the crowd called out — “let there be light!” — and waited for the bulbs to flick on.
The lights had remained unrepaired for months, despite numerous requests from residents — another item on a long list of deferred maintenance projects throughout the public housing complex. But on Saturday, as a crowd of more than 100 people gathered in Southeast Washington to demand that the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) prioritize requests to remediate mold, lead, pests and other issues, several longtime residents said they could feel a small ember of hope ignite along with those lights.
“We have a lot of past hurt and disappointment,” said Brenda Perry, 67, a former D.C. government employee who has lived in the Benning Terrace complex for more than 20 years. “We have seen new directors come in and give us new hope. But when nothing follows through, we become hopeless.”
Brenda Donald, director of DCHA, nodded. When Perry began to cry, describing how years of being ignored has made her and others feel invisible, the director placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“This is about building back trust,” Donald said later, noting she has spent the last several months on a listening tour at properties in the District’s stock of 52 public housing complexes and 23 mixed-income properties that provide homes to low-income residents. “These are real people who have suffered and been disappointed. They feel invisible and they shouldn’t be.”
Benning Terrace, a public housing complex in the Marshall Heights neighborhood, houses families in 274 units spread throughout 98 townhouses and eight three-story walk-up apartment buildings.
More than 50,000 Washingtonians live in properties owned or operated by DCHA, a number of which live in properties the agency has deemed dangerously dilapidated. DCHA has outlined plans to demolish and rebuild five properties and partially demolish and renovate another five, including Benning Terrace, which was built in 1958.
But residents said as they have waited for promises of better housing to come to fruition, ongoing issues of broken smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, lead paint in common areas and mold in apartments have only gotten worse.
At Saturday’s rally, organized by the Washington Interfaith Network, residents presented Donald with a list of demands the director enthusiastically endorsed as residents, interfaith leaders and supporters clapped along.
Among their demands: A commitment to a timeline for eliminating lead paint and mold from residences; filling potholes and fixing the sidewalks alongside the parking lot; opening a community room to better serve children; and finishing the light replacement on the football field, which as of Saturday, was about half done.
“A promise too long delayed is a promise denied,” said Minister Anthony L. Minter of First Rock Baptist Church. “We are here to reclaim hope and dignity from a system … [that] seemingly does not see the concerns nor the plight of the residents.”
Donald told residents the agency was prepared to spend $17 million on repairs, including $6 million for lead paint abatement. She said the repairs will “not transform this community,” which will still require larger, long-term fixes.
Donald was appointed to oversee the agency on an interim basis in June and then, two months later, the agency’s embattled board of commissioners voted to officially instate her permanently, in lieu of conducting a national search.
Critics pointed out that Donald, who most recently served as director for D.C.'s Children and Family Services Agency, did not have experience in real estate or affordable housing.
“I’m just learning this world of housing and housing finance,” Donald told residents Saturday.
Several residents said they have long-standing doubts about DCHA, but they want to believe that Donald’s fresh take on the agency might be able to shake things up enough to get things done. Some added that recent controversies involving the DCHA board of commissioners have also given them pause.
The U.S. attorney’s office in recent days issued a criminal subpoena to the D.C. Housing Authority seeking documents pertaining to former board chair Neil Albert, who stepped down last month after published reports revealed he had voted to approve contracts for an architecture firm whose chief executive is Albert’s romantic partner.
The D.C. Council’s housing committee has called for an independent investigation by the Office of the Inspector General into “issues regarding procurement and contracting irregularities, conflicts of interest involving DCHA’s Board of Commissioners and agency staff, staff intimidation and abuse of power, and misuse of DCHA resources.” Donald has said she will cooperate with any investigations.