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Involuntary displacement on the rise as affordable D.C. housing dwindles

(Published February 10, 2003)


Special to The Common Denominator

Alarming numbers of D.C. residents are being forced out of their homes, according to local housing advocates who attribute this displacement to intense developmental pressure combined with severe stress on government housing programs.

"Since 1999, we have really seen this turn into a serious problem," said Linda Leaks, director of Washington Innercity Self-Help. "All over the city, wherever you see boarded-up buildings or new construction, that is frequently where low-income people used to live."

General demographic indicators describing homelessness, affordable-housing demand and poverty support the observations of Leaks and others.

These figures illustrate a city where low-income households are increasingly experiencing homelessness, requiring governmental housing assistance and ultimately leaving the city for suburbs with more affordable housing.

"It is hard to know exactly how much of this reflects the economic downturn and how much of that is related to involuntary displacement," said Sue Popkins, a senior research fellow at the Urban Institute. "But given the tight housing market in the District, there is no doubt that at least some of this is due to displacement."

The young, well-educated professionals driving the District’s first population gain in 40 years also spurred a significant increase in housing demand. This relatively affluent group, which benefited most from the prosperity of the ’90s, continues to seek out the convenience and social amenities provided by urban living even in the face of an economic downturn.

They are most attracted to neighborhoods with historically significant but undervalued housing stock, good access to mass transit and close proximity to already-gentrified neighborhoods. The most-coveted areas in the District surround the edges of Capitol Hill and run along the 16th street corridor heading north of downtown.

"The economic pressures on these neighborhoods are incredible," said Sczerina Perot, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "Landlords are making economic decisions to cash in on higher rents and the consequence for tenants can be devastating."

Adds Leaks: "In neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Shaw and Logan Circle, working-class, low-income and older, long-time residents are in danger of losing their homes for reasons they cannot control."

Renters generally face the greatest displacement pressures. Increased demand dramatically raises market-rate rents, spurs development that decreases the housing supply, and increases the turn-over rates for lower-income residents.

The District’s rent-control law has prevented some of the skyrocketing rents seen in other hot housing markets. But not all units qualify under the limited scope of the law.

Apartment complexes either built after 1975 or owned by a landlord with fewer than four rental units are exempt from rent-control regulations. Consequently, rents have soared in smaller units that are not owned by large-scale property owners.

But even rent-controlled buildings feel the pressure of a tight housing market and residents may still find their rent increasing quickly. Every rent-controlled unit has a rent ceiling assigned by the D.C. Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs. In slack times, actual rent charged may fall below the ceiling. In periods of high-demand, rents can quickly rise toward rental ceilings as leases expire.

In addition, a building owner can qualify for up to a 12-percent-a-year rent ceiling increase if similar, market-rate units command higher rents. That can be enough to price out households already living paycheck to paycheck.

Not only higher rents threaten poorer residents. Higher-earning newcomers to these neighborhoods generally seek larger and more luxurious living spaces than their predecessors, and they are willing to pay higher rents in return. Property owners are eager to renovate and remodel their apartments to accommodate the changing demand, and this frequently means eliminating smaller and more affordable units.

"A landlord can legally kick people out of the building to make substantial repairs or renovations," Perot said. "I recently took on a case where an entire building, 1460 Irving Avenue, received eviction notices."

Perot temporarily blocked the evictions in court and is currently contesting the building owner’s significant-renovation petition before DCRA. Winning such a petition is not easy; only two were granted in 2002. Successful petitioners may raise rents up to 125 percent after renovations are completed.

"Not many petitions are granted, but many property owners try to reach a private settlement with their tenants, especially if petitions are denied or contested," Perot said. "There are no regulatory mechanisms or any way to reliably track these kinds of arrangements."

DCRA granted more than 120 building permits last year for general repair or renovation of residential buildings with four floors or more. Building permits do not require a successful petition to the Rental Housing Commission if a private agreement has been reached between tenants and owner, or if the units are empty.

Both housing activists and government officials express concern that involuntary displacement appears to be increasing, in part, due to the non-renewal of many project-based Section 8 contracts. Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program, developers received government loans for the construction or substantial rehabilitation of privately owned buildings to be used for subsidized housing.

Currently, many Section 8 contracts in the District are about to expire. Building owners then have the option to either renew contracts with the government or to opt out of the program and make their buildings available at market-rate rents.

Antonia Fasanelli of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless recently won a grant to research the effects of HUD opt-outs on homelessness.

"I have only just begun this research," she said, "but from what I know, since the year 2000, 129 buildings have opted out or will opt out in the next couple of years. That will affect something around 10,000 units of housing."

Residents of Section 8 buildings whose owners choose not to renew expired contracts are given "enhanced vouchers" by the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA). The vouchers provide additional funds to allow residents to continue living in the same units even if rents are above the normal value of vouchers. Last year, DCHA issued 832 enhanced vouchers. These vouchers account for only a fraction of the 3,542 assisted housing units eliminated due to expiring contracts last year, as reported through an unofficial, online HUD database. HUD has not yet released an official number of units affected by expiring contracts in the District in 2002.

Fasanelli said that some tenants may not be aware that "enhanced vouchers" are available. "Tenants seem to hold misconceptions that they will be required to move out of housing. How these misconceptions become created is not yet clear," she said.

But not all buildings that opt out of Section 8 qualify for the "enhanced vouchers."

"My gut feeling," Perot said, "is that landlords are finding legal loopholes to evict tenants. For example, if a landlord renovates his building, enhanced vouchers no longer apply. They simply become regular vouchers, and residents have to find housing elsewhere."

The demolition of public housing projects under the federal HOPE VI program also adds to the problem. The program is a series of federal grants for public housing renovation. Although intended to combat the social problems created by high concentrations of poverty found in many traditional public housing developments, the program has been repeatedly criticized for poor implementation. According to Popkins, who has studied the program across the country, "Only a small minority of former residents ever qualify to move back in to the new redeveloped project."

DCHA officials recently said that 914 individuals have been displaced by HOPE VI projects in the District, not including individuals displaced or soon to be displaced by the ongoing demolition of 780 units in the Arthur Capper public housing development.

The number appears low, given that it reflects 2,253 units of public housing demolished – many of which housed families – to make way for the Wheeler Creek and Henson Ridge developments in Southeast Washington and the impending redevelopment of the East Capitol Dwellings.

Even according to the DCHA numbers, 516 of those 916 residents have had to compete for the scarce stocks of affordable housing, some with housing vouchers and some without. The remaining 398 individuals were relocated to other public housing projects, according to DCHA.

Even the families that receive voucher assistance are not guaranteed housing. The success of the voucher program largely depends on the willingness of landlords to accept the vouchers. DCHA officials said that approximately 5 percent of program participants are unable to find housing before their vouchers expire, even with expiration-date extensions.

Though both the District’s Human Rights Act and Housing Act of 2002 make it illegal to discriminate based on source of income, landlords are reluctant to turn apartments over to lower-income residents.

But Leaks said such discrimination continues. "Until we get serious about enforcing these laws, people are not going to stop," she said.

One thing that everyone recognizes is that there are too few vouchers.

"We have around 8,500 households using vouchers right now. We have over 20,000 families on the waiting list right now. But in 2001 we only received around 1,500 vouchers from the federal government," said Herbert Ruffins, director of the Housing Choice voucher program at DCHA.

Most of the families forced out of their homes for economic reasons rely upon friends and family to keep them sheltered until they can find housing elsewhere, activists note. Some end up in the District’s shelter system, but even getting a spot there can require a three-month wait. Others move outside the city, although traditionally affordable suburban locations – like Prince George’s County – are also experiencing affordable housing shortages. A small number will spend time living on the streets.

"It is important to remember that displacement is terrible enough in itself," Perot said. "When you lose your community, you lose your church, you lose your daycare, your school.

"We know this has awful consequences on children’s ability to learn, awful consequences on a family’s ability to maintain jobs. A community includes a social structure that provides support, like daycare for children. Family members and acquaintances pick up children from school; take care of them while parents work. This is actually how low-income families survive.

"When this gets disrupted, the economic consequences can be unbearable," she said.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator