There was the group of elderly women living in a public-housing complex who thought they were just out of luck when their trash stopped getting collected and rodents scampered around their homes.
And there was the woman who said her landlord tied a red balloon around her doorknob when she was late on rent to shame her in front of her neighbors.
“She experienced this as embarrassing, as upsetting, as her landlord telling her business to her neighbors. I immediately thought of this as a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act,” said Faith Mullen, a law professor at Catholic University. “A lot of people with legal problems don’t see them as legal problems.”
It’s common knowledge that there are two different D.C.s — one inhabited by younger newcomers with disposable incomes who live in luxury condos, and another in which many longtime residents struggle to find decent jobs and affordable housing.
Mullen and the other co-authors of a report released Monday set out to paint a more nuanced portrait of what it means to be poor in the nation’s capital — by directly asking poor residents themselves.
The main takeaway: Finding and keeping affordable housing is by far the dominant stress among low-income residents — more so than concerns about food, education or domestic violence.
“I was surprised by the number of people who have a number of very serious problems. People that had really grave problems, problems with domestic [abuse], problems with childhood custody, and a very large percentage of them still said housing was their biggest problem,” Mullen said. “It really put it into a larger context.”
Researchers surveyed more than 600 low-income residents about their most persistent stresses and what steps — successful or unsuccessful — they have taken to remedy their problems. All survey participants had incomes at 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level, which is $24,300 for a family of four.
The nonprofit DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers, which sponsored the study, sought to determine whether these residents knew their full legal rights. The group also hoped to use the responses to learn how nonprofits and government agencies in D.C. could better serve the residents.
More than one-third of the survey’s participants named issues related to housing as the most serious problem they’ve faced in the past two years. Forty percent of respondents said residents in their neighborhoods most need help with housing.
Nearly 50 percent of the respondents said they struggled to keep up with rent increases and to get their landlords to make necessary repairs.
Donya Williams, 45, who participated in the survey, said she’s been evicted from D.C. apartments four times since 2009. She moved here with her children from Denver seven years ago after her shoe business flopped, and she was hoping she could better support her family in the District, which was spared the brunt of the recession.
But her business never took off, and she says she bounced from one roach- and rat-infested apartment in Southeast to another. She says she became tangled in lawsuits when trying to fight her landlords and is now living in a homeless shelter in Columbia Heights with her 13-year-old daughter, who attends a charter school a long commute away in Anacostia.
“I call D.C. General homeless shelter the nicest and most secure place I’ve lived, so that tells you something about the slumlords,” Williams said. “You cannot feel good, or do good, if you are living in a hole.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration has vowed to prioritize the creation of more affordable housing, pumping $100 million into these efforts during her first year in office.
This latest community survey highlights the necessity of those efforts, but it also found that even those who have housing are stressed that they may soon lose it and then, given increasing housing costs in the city, will have nowhere else to go.
Sixty percent of respondents said they worried about not having any housing in the future.
The study also found that many of the surveyed residents who did not have health insurance qualified for government programs but didn’t know they were eligible.
“It seems that there were some identifiable pockets of people who just didn’t know they are qualified,” Mullen said.
A third of respondents said they didn’t turn to anyone to help solve their problems, according to the report. Twenty percent of those who did seek help said they went to a community organization.
To find the survey participants, Mullen said, law students and community members held focus groups and went into neighborhoods to conduct the surveys, which lasted about 20 minutes. Many of the questions were open-ended, and Mullen said the wording was crucial.
“We asked them to tell us about their biggest problems, not legal issues, because a lot of people who will tell you about their most terrible problems will tell you that they don’t have any legal problems,” she said. “This was an effort to find out where the needs are from the perspective of people who actually need it.”