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Northwest D.C. residents criticize oversight of rent voucher programs

Residents of the Sedgwick Gardens apartments in Northwest Washington say some new tenants using city-issued housing vouchers are violent, use drugs or otherwise disrupt life in the building.
Residents of the Sedgwick Gardens apartments in Northwest Washington say some new tenants using city-issued housing vouchers are violent, use drugs or otherwise disrupt life in the building. (Samantha Ganey for The Washington Post)
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Complaints from residents of a Northwest Washington apartment building about lax oversight of a voucher program for poor tenants are drawing scrutiny from city officials, who in recent weeks have taken steps to allay their concerns.

Those criticisms, highlighted Friday at an oversight hearing by the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, center on Sedgwick Gardens — a stately brick building on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park.

Located in one of the District’s more affluent neighborhoods, the apartment building has recently seen an influx of low-income tenants using city-issued housing vouchers. Their presence has caused friction with other residents, who say some of their new neighbors are violent, use drugs or otherwise disrupt life at the building.

Police visits to the building have increased tenfold since 2014, rising from 12 calls for help in 2014 to 121 calls last year.

Tensions peaked in 2018, when a police tactical team engaged in an hours-long standoff with one tenant. City agencies do not typically identify voucher recipients, and it is unclear whether that tenant was using a housing voucher.

Sedgwick Gardens resident Diane McWhorter testified Friday that the situation had become “a model of community destabilization” and “what too often looks like the ‘dumping’ and abandonment of people in sometimes heartbreaking need of intensive support.”

McWhorter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book about segregation and the civil rights movement, said the goals of the city’s voucher programs were laudable but that safeguards were not in place for voucher recipients who pose a threat to neighbors.

“It’s great to give somebody a chance and to see if they can cope in an independent setting,” she said. “But if it becomes clear that they can’t, there’s got to be some backup.”

This week, in response to residents’ concerns, the D.C. Department of Human Services assigned licensed social workers to staff the building during evening hours to deal with any problems that come up.

“While the District as a community has acknowledged our shared value of affordable housing for all residents, we are responsive to the concerns of all neighbors,” Jay Melder, chief of staff to Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage, said in a statement.

Between 50 and 70 units in the building of roughly 140 units are occupied by tenants with vouchers, mayoral officials said. Of those tenants, between 30 and 40 are formerly homeless people who require social or mental-health services.

Tenants with a housing voucher pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, with the city subsidizing the rest of the bill.

The District’s efforts to address its homelessness and housing crises have not always been met with open arms. The replacement of the central D.C. General homeless shelter with smaller, safer shelters spread across the city — a marquee initiative of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — faced resistance and litigation in some neighborhoods.

But council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she did not think the problems at Sedgwick Gardens were a simple case of better-off apartment dwellers not wanting to live side-by-side with low-income residents.

“If you just look at the calls for service to the police department and the types of incidents that residents complain of, it seems to be something that goes beyond simple economic issues,” Cheh said.

Officials at DARO, which manages Sedgwick Gardens, did not respond to calls for comment.

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