Why Are Elderly Public Housing Residents in D.C. Getting Forced from Their Homes?

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    Levant Graham thought she would live in her home on T Street NW her whole life. The 84-year-old moved into the Washington, D.C., home about 40 years ago — her first home, in fact — and raised her 12 children there.

    But last year the District of Columbia Housing Authority forced her out, and they’ve done the same to other public housing tenants living in some of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.

    Now, Graham lives in a new neighborhood in affordable DCHA housing. But she doesn’t go out much because she doesn’t trust the area.

    “I don’t know what the real purpose for me moving the house was ’cause I offered to buy it several times,” Graham told WUSA9 reporters.

    Yet housing advocates say the reason is clear: the housing authority is pushing low-income residents out of these neighborhoods in order to flip the houses and sell them at a premium.

    “We have a housing crisis precisely because of this type of action that the housing authority is engaged in,” Parisa Norouzi, Executive Director of Empower D.C., told reporters. “They are acting as a luxury developer rather than serving their mission of housing lower income in our city.”

    Norouzi’s organization helps advocate for tenants like Graham, who are victims of the agency’s gentrification efforts.

    Many of those who have been forced from their homes lived in “scattered sites,” or public housing properties scattered through the city. There were once more than 300 such homes, but the DCHA has been selling them off since the 1990s, according to U.S. News and World Report.

    Since about 2010, D.C. began treating the homes in the way real estate investors would, by gutting and rehabbing, or “flipping,” them to sell at market value.

    Previously, the homes had been sold to low- and moderate-income buyers or to nonprofits, which is standard practice for most housing authorities across the nation.

    Graham pointed out that one housing authority home sold for $920,000 after being flipped. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that each home being flipped saw renovations of more than $300,000, mainly due to the luxury amenities being added. Research shows that even minor kitchen remodels, like the addition of custom-made cabinets, can yield a return on investment of 72.8% on average — and sometimes even more with luxury additions like state-of-the-art appliances and quartz counter tops.

    Although the housing authority has claimed to be pouring money back into the other public housing properties they maintain, Norouzi said they’re doing more harm than good. Residents like Graham have been moved from their own single-family homes into multi-family properties in an effort to cut costs.

    “They’re actually contributing to the escalation of prices in this neighborhood,” she told reporters. “We don’t have to do it this way. It does not have to be that we erase people’s social networks, their neighborhood, their history, their identity.”

    The one thing that elderly families receiving public housing haven’t lost is that assistance, according to the housing authority. “Each affected elderly family continues to be a DCHA customer living in a home they selected from DCHA portfolio or with a housing choice voucher (formerly Section 8). The families were never at risk of losing their housing assistance,” the DCHA said in a statement.

    As for the renovation costs, the DCHA said that each of the homes needed “major systems overhaul,” including their plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems

    D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told WUSA9 that she’s looking into the issue.

    “The Housing Authority reports to a board,” the mayor told reporters, “so this is not a policy that’s coming out of my office so I want to make sure it lines up with our goals of preserving housing in all parts of the city.”

    Graham thought her house on T Street would be a “forever home” for her and her children. She’s disappointed that the housing authority never gave her a straight answer about why she had to move in the first place.

    Meanwhile, although renovations are complete on Graham’s former home, it still sits vacant and unsold. Her children have gone past it when they’re in town, but Graham said she can’t bear to look at it.