After a grueling summer day that began before sunrise — after four buses, two trains, two jobs and one college class — the only thing 20-year-old Daydette Sesay wanted to do was go home.
Only she didn’t have one.
Sesay and thousands of other working-poor residents in the D.C. region are bearing the cost of a government failure: Construction delays have snarled a series of badly needed affordable housing projects funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For months, Sesay had been sleeping in an eight-bed homeless shelter near the Rockville Metro station. It sits about a mile from an empty lot in downtown Rockville, where a HUD-funded developer received $550,000 but built nothing.
“I’m just hoping to get somewhere permanent,” Sesay said outside the shelter last August as the sun was setting on another 13-hour workday. “I just want to have a stable place to live.”
Rents have increased more in the District in recent years than in most major cities, including New York and Los Angeles. At the same time, thousands of low-cost rental units were taken off the market as old apartment buildings were converted to pricey condominiums.
Rents across the region have also surged. Now, one in five renters and one in seven homeowners in the Washington area spends more than half his or her income on housing, census figures show.
“It’s just terrible,” said Elaine Sands, who helps run the family shelter where Sesay stayed. “There is no housing, and people have no place to go.”
Born in Georgia, Sesay had never known a stable home. Her father left when she was a baby. Her mother died when she was 14, and Sesay, an only child, moved in with her aunt in Rockville.
Soft-spoken and bright, she earned high grades in high school and spent nights and weekends playing soccer. After a stint as a volunteer coach, she decided she wanted to become a teacher.
In 2007, she graduated from Richard Montgomery High School and said she was accepted at several universities. But there was no money for tuition.
“Everybody I graduated with was going away,” Sesay said. “I wanted to live in a dorm. I wanted to experience a campus.”
Instead, Sesay enrolled in Montgomery College, piecing together tuition money with financial aid and part-time jobs. Just after she started her second year in 2009, she had a falling out with her aunt. Sesay said she had to leave, and fled on foot with nothing but a laptop and a duffel bag full of clothes.
She found a bed in a women’s shelter in Rockville. Then, she learned she was pregnant.
Terrified, she found two part-time secretarial jobs and shopped for an apartment, but quickly learned that rents were unaffordable on a $9-an-hour wage. When her daughter Kailee was born in February 2010, she found a bed in the Rockville family shelter and applied for a housing voucher.
Months passed without a phone call. Montgomery County’s public housing waiting list tops 11,000; the list for a voucher stands at more than 15,600.
Sesay was grateful for a bed but wanted out of the shelter. She daydreamed about a pink and purple room for her daughter, a pudgy Elmo fan whom the shelter staff nicknamed “lady bug.”
At night, she’d tuck Kailee into the bottom of a bunk bed, in a room with a single cabinet. Even with financial help from the baby’s father, also a Montgomery College student, Sesay couldn’t afford a crib.
After months in college, Sesay began to question whether she could continue to afford tuition. She stopped going to class, two semesters shy of an associate’s degree in education. In late August, after eight months in the shelter, she got the call she’d been waiting for.
A Montgomery County nonprofit group had found an apartment in Silver Spring, and Sesay’s $1,600 monthly rent would be offset with a housing voucher. She was still unsure whether she would be able to scrape together enough money to return to college, but at least she would have a stable place to live.
On moving day in her first real home, she dashed from room to room, unpacking donated groceries, dishes and blankets. The furniture was new, and there was a crib with a pink blanket in a second bedroom for Kailee. The apartment smelled of fresh paint.
Sesay stopped in the kitchen, eyeing her first cookbook. She stopped in the laundry room and studied her first washing machine. She stopped in the bathroom, where fresh brown towels were hanging next to a new toothbrush holder.
But it was the quiet that moved Sesay most.
She looked at her daughter and said, “Tonight, we are sleeping in my room.”