The Washington Post

District seniors call for more affordable housing and protection from rent hikes

Over 100 older District residents met Friday to voice concerns about the difficulty of finding and keeping affordable housing as real estate values skyrocket.

At the Senior Housing Town Hall in Columbia Heights, the first such gathering sponsored by the DC Senior Advisory Coalition, AARP DC and Housing for All, residents from seven of the city’s eight wards told stories of financial hardship, illegal rent increases and substandard building maintenance.

“My Social Security goes up $11, my rent goes up $30,” said Mary Young, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and tenant advocate from Ward 3. “Those $19 come out of food and medicine, and you can forget about social life, because I can’t afford to have one.”

With more than 14 percent of District seniors at or below the poverty line, compared with 9.4 percent nationally, and at least 8 percent of homeless people in the District identifying as seniors, the number of affordable units lags behind the number of older people who qualify, said Samantha Davis, an advocacy specialist at So Others Might Eat, which is part of the DC Senior Advisory Coalition. “In the past year the mayor dedicated $100 million to affordable housing. But families have normally been preferenced, and single adults feel left out.”

Cynthia Durham, 67, a retiree from Ward 5, said that for three or four years, she has been putting her name on waiting lists for affordable housing, which costs 30 percent of a tenant’s income. “They have given me no response except to tell me that I’m number 627 on the list at one place, and number 933 on the list at another place.”

Glenda Richmond, 70, spoke of violations in her senior building, including roach, mouse and bedbug infestations, malodorous garbage and a lack of wheelchair access.

“Now, if that building is supposed to be for seniors, then why hasn’t the owner invested in giving us accessibility?” she asked.

Attendees called for better protection for low-income residents and stronger requirements for developers to include affordable housing in projects.

Without more support, low-income older people have few options, advocates said. “A couple of people in my building in their 90s, their rent is higher than their income,” Young said. “If the city doesn’t fix this problem now they’re going to have a real problem with the seniors out in the streets.”

One source of relief could lie in a bill under consideration by the City Council that would grant property tax exemptions to those 75 or older who have resided in the District for at least 25 years and have an income of $60,000 or less.

But 60 percent of District residents are renters.

Munir Sheikh, 63, said his landlord had illegally raised the rent on his rent-controlled Woodley Park apartment after claiming, falsely, that it had been vacated. Owners can increase the rent by 30 percent after an apartment has been vacant.

The rent hike forced Sheikh to get roommates and had left him financially unstable, he said.

“One month I was behind, and the landlord took advantage of that and sued for eviction,” he said. A judge found the landlord had not followed the city code, Sheikh said, and the case is pending.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and generations.

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