Preston L. Williams holds his head in his hands as he explains all of the paperwork and meetings he has gone through to try and rehab his home. Williams has been trying for two years to have renovations done in his deteriorating home. (Erin Schaff/For The Washington Post)

Preston L. Williams has been living in substandard, even hazardous, conditions for some time now despite having been accepted into a District program designed to rehabilitate homes for low-income people, particularly older people who want to age in place.

Williams, 68, an Army veteran with serious back and pulmonary problems, breathes with the help of an oxygen tank. Yet he inhabits a home with mold, gaping holes in the walls, leaky plumbing and a long flight of narrow steps — all things the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development has promised to fix or improve, he said.

Williams has testified before the D.C. Council and the Senior Advisory Coalition about his efforts to move the projects along. He said he wonders what it must be like for other older people who have less fight and patience. He loves his home and, like many older people, wants to remain there with his beloved house plants for the rest of his days.

“This is my world,” said Williams, a former federal law enforcement officer. “I want to be taken out of here feet first.”

Advocates for older people, a former DHCD manager and city officials said the agency has a poor record delivering on the promises it has made to Williams and others who need help rehabilitating their unsafe and substandard housing.

Alayna Waldrum, an attorney with LeadingAge DC, has been working with Preston Williams for over a year and is frustrated with the lack of progress by the Housing Department. (Erin Schaff/For The Washington Post)

The agency offers up to $75,000 in loans and grants for low-income families to make repairs, add improvements for people with disabilities and correct code violations. The initiative, known as the Single Family Residential Rehabilitation Program, is especially important for older residents trying to remain in their homes and avoid moving into nursing homes or other institutions.

The program can mean fixing leaky roofs, upgrading wiring or installing wheelchair ramps, chair lifts or bathroom fixtures. Homeowners 62 and older can have the first $10,000 of a loan forgiven. Advocates point out that for some low-income residents, the program is more cost-efficient than moving to a retirement home, where expenses are often borne by taxpayers through Medicaid or other programs.

Yet, only a tiny portion of the program’s allocated budget was used last year. The D.C. Council, citing the program’s importance, has increased its budget tenfold to $8 million. The program used only $800,000.

“It’s ridiculous the agency has taken this long,” said Frederick Hill III, a former DHCD program manager. “And it’s a really good program. A lot of people can benefit from it.”

Hill said the initiative has been inefficient for years, receiving as many as 150 applications a year and processing no more than 15. Part of the problem is that city workers lack basic understanding of construction, he said. Habitually late payments to contractors disrupted work and discouraged some from further participating in the program, Hill said.

Frustrated by what he saw, Hill alerted the D.C. Council to a dozen cases that had languished, in some cases for years. He said he was terminated from his $95,000-a-year post a short time later.

Polly Donaldson, DHCD’s new director, acknowledged the single-family rehab program’s problems. In a telephone conference with reporters, Donaldson said officials have processed more applications in the first quarter of fiscal 2015 than during the previous fiscal year.

Molding paint peels from the ceiling in Preston L. Williams's kitchen. Williams has been trying for two years to have renovations done in his deteriorating home. (Erin Schaff/For The Washington Post)

“There is clearly an upswing in terms of efficiency,” said Donaldson, whose appointment by Mayor Muriel C. Bowser (D) was confirmed by the D.C. Council last month. “We know that the families in need of those resources, many of them are our senior population that wants to age in place. So more concentrated effort on that is needed.”

In Williams’s case, the city first promised to convert the basement of his three-story townhouse into an efficiency apartment with a modern bath and other improvements that would be more accessible for him. When that project ran into problems because of building code regulations, the plan came to a halt.

After a long delay, many e-mails and a meeting with agency officials and his advocate, the city agreed to install an outside lift to reach the second floor, where he resides. But nothing has happened since the plan was formulated last fall. The city is insisting that a survey needs to be done first.

Advocates who have worked with Williams said the bureaucratic impasse he has faced almost seems like a deliberate attempt to buy time until he gives up, moves or dies.

“I don’t think it’s incompetence. This feels like purposeful stonewalling. And my heart is breaking for this man,” said Alayna R. Waldrum, an attorney with LeadingAge, an umbrella organization of 6,000 nonprofit groups in the field of aging. “We have discussed among his allies and advocates, whether they’re just trying to wait him out.”

Williams said he entered the program reluctantly, embarrassed that he needed help. But now he feels like he’s in limbo, never sure whether the plans have changed again or whether anything will get done.

“It’s so frustrating because you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you,” Williams said.

Advocates for older people say the need for such a program is critical for Williams and others such as Lelia Wooten, a widow who has lived in her Northeast Washington neighborhood long enough to see white people flee in the 1950s and now slowly return.

“I just tell my daughter, I’ve been here so long, I’d like to stay here till I pass away,” Wooten, 91, said.

But she, too, has gotten the runaround from the DHCD for nearly four years, said her daughter, Brenda Wright.

The city has fixed Wooten’s roof and installed a new HVAC unit and hot water heater. But when unanticipated complications arose with the rehab job, she was forced to move into a hotel for three months as contractors and subcontractors and city inspectors wrangled back and forth. Work stalled from the spring of 2012 until early 2013. The city paid for part of the hotel stay, but part of the cost came from savings and a reverse mortgage.

Several problems still bedevil her home, a brick rowhouse on Fourth Street NE, Wright said. The rewiring performed by the city blows a fuse whenever she turns on a light, a heater and her television at the same time. A walk-in bathtub installed by city-paid contractors leaks because it wasn’t hooked up correctly. Wooten uses a pan of water instead to give herself sponge baths. And she’s still waiting for the city to build a wheelchair ramp behind her home.

“There’s too much miscommunication, too much passing the buck,” said Wright, who lives with her mother and has handled the back-and-forth with the city agency for her mother. “Even within the same office, people don’t know what other people are doing. It makes no sense.”