DC is ready to clear 20,000 names from waitlist, and reopen public housing applications

Getting a voucher to live in one of D.C.’s 8,000 public housing apartments is tough. Ten years ago, the city’s housing authority froze the waitlist that was more than 20 thousand people long. Now, the department has a plan to reopen applications.

In testifying to the D.C. Council Committee on Housing on Thursday, resident Ronald Smith spoke about how difficult it has been for him to get permanent housing for himself and his wife.

“I’ve been on the waitlist for vouchers since the first week of January 2006,” Smith said.

He’s not alone. There are 22,000 other names on the waitlist for vouchers which the D.C. Housing Authority froze in 2013.

At the shelter where Smith and his wife live, he feels unsafe.

“My nerves are always on edge … I’m not happy. I’ve gone and asked for help, reached out, done everything that I know how to do,” he said.

He cannot understand why it’s taken so long.

“I’m 76 years old … When is my name gonna come up? After I’m dead?” he said.

Hours later, when Housing Authority Executive Director Brenda Donald took the mic to testify in the oversight hearing, she offered light at the end of the tunnel for applicants like Smith. Next month, her office plans to change its policy and reopen the waitlist, allowing residents to select their preferred housing location.

“It’s a much more targeted approach, and we think that we can be more nimble and that people who sign up will, you know, already expressed their interest in the units that we have available. And this is where a lot of public housing jurisdictions across the country do this, and it makes more sense,” she said to committee chair Robert White.

However, there’s a catch. Donald testified that before reopening the list, they first must reach out to everyone on the existing waitlist to see if they are eligible and or still need housing.

“What we discovered over the past year and a half of doing this is that there’s a lot of attrition, or basically either no show or lack of interest, from people who’ve been on a waitlist for 25 or more years.” Donald explained. “And families change. Someone who was on the waitlist 25 years ago who had five children who needed four bedrooms, now those children have grown up and have moved out.”

Since assuming the role as director in the summer of 2021, Donald said 500 units have been renovated and are ready to be occupied.

“There are already 19,000 people living in public housing in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

The authority hopes to have 1,200 newly renovated apartments in total available by the end of the year.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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