Monica Jackson, 48, a 20-year resident at the Terrace Manor apartments, opens the door to her unit in the complex owned by Sanford Capital. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)
Columnist

Following Post and Washington City Paper articles exposing the flow of city housing dollars to owners of deplorable apartments used by poor and recently homeless residents, I asked D.C. Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger: “Do you consider Sanford Capital” — the firm that owns the apartments — “an acceptable alternative to D.C. General or homelessness?”

Zeilinger replied by email on March 2: “Any provider can be an acceptable alternative if they are meeting the standards necessary to ensure a safe environment for residents.”

She didn’t stop there.

Stressing her concern “personally” for the safety and security of people experiencing homelessness, Zeilinger said: “The District does not and will not provide a housing resource for any property or unit that does not pass a Housing Quality Standards (HQS) inspection that is completed by a certified HQS inspector through the D.C. Housing Authority.”

Well and good. But after years of watching and writing about the Department of Human Services, just about everything the department ever has to say for and about itself is, well, just swell. Identify an issue threatening the social fabric, and DHS is already on top of it. The department’s stated mission, after all, “is to empower every District resident to reach their full potential.”

Thus my pesky follow-up to DHS on March 2: “May I see the results of Housing Quality Standards inspection reports completed on Sanford units in which [DHS] clients have been placed?”

Within minutes, DHS public information officer Dora Taylor-Lowe replied: “I’ll request copies of the inspections now. Thanks.”

Taylor-Lowe wrote the following day: “I am in the process of gathering the relevant inspection reports and will provide copies for your review early next week.”

Despite repeated emails and phone calls, no reports, nothing, nada.

I won’t speculate as to why DHS has not released the inspection reports.

DHS talks a good game. And it looks good on paper.

Let’s return to the situation with Sanford Capital’s wretched apartments.

Zeilinger, in response to my question, wrote, “Clients are encouraged to look for units that best meet their family’s needs and DHS makes every effort possible to ensure that our consumers select units that are safe and environmentally sound.” She added: “We understand the trauma experienced by families and individuals who have a homeless experience and are cognizant of not extending the trauma by placing people in unsafe or undesirable conditions.”

Zeilinger cited a DHS protocol stating that a provider such as Sanford shall assist a tenant in relocating to a different unit if, among other things, “the unit has substantial housing code violations which adversely impact the health or safety of the participant’s household, which the landlord fails to address after receiving notice of the housing code.”

Pardon me, but the city has issued more than 200 warnings to Sanford for housing-code violations during the past eight years and levied more than $150,000 in fines. The company has yet to pay nearly a third — more than $40,000. And even as The Post and City Paper were reporting on Sanford’s conditions, DHS was still listing Sanford as a site for residents with housing vouchers.

Zeilinger also touted DHS’s case-management services for families in their rehousing and stabilization program — “a minimum of monthly home visits and regular check-ins,” she said. What’s more, she said, “when case managers observe or are made aware of housing code violations that are not quickly resolved, consumers may be connected to the Office of the Tenant Advocate,” which provides mediation. “This process may include withholding the rent from the landlord,” paying rent into an escrow account “that is only dispersed to the landlord when repairs are completed.”

Which led me on March 4 to also ask DHS for copies of reports filed by DHS case managers regarding Sanford housing-code violations, and for cases of DHS having connected “consumers” with the Office of the Tenant Advocate regarding unresolved violations.

Still waiting.

The protocols governing the decaying, vermin-ridden D.C. General family shelter read well, too. That’s where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived with her family before she disappeared three years ago.

The lives of thousands of families — mostly women and children — are governed by DHS protocols. There is, however, a vast gap between protocols and performance, as the city should have learned all too well with D.C. General, as it is learning with Sanford Capital, and as it must learn fast even as it launches an ambitious family shelter scheme across the city.

It may look good on paper. Performance counts.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.