Housing Complex


February is usually the worst month for the District's hotel business—a flat lull before cherry blossom season comes along March.

But the Comfort Inn, a stuccoed yellow outpost on New York Avenue NE, is having a great winter. Of course, it's a strange kind of success. One portion of the clientele is just what you'd expect: Middle-class families here to take in the capital's sites. The other guests, though, are the ones who have boosted the Comfort Inn's occupancy rate in this ordinarily fallow month. They're homeless people whose long-term stays are paid for by the D.C. government.

Under city law, the District's Department of Human Services is required to house homeless people between November and the end of March. Last year—for the first time since a Marion Barry-era scandal in which filthy rooms were rented for exorbitant prices—the city put up about 70 families in hotels, to avoid repeating the previous winter's overcrowding scandal at the D.C. General Hospital campus' public shelter.

This year, demand is even higher. With D.C. General again over capacity, between 185 and 210 families per night wind up in either the Comfort Inn or a nearby Howard Johnson. It's a pretty good deal for the hotels, almost like having a two-month long convention in town. Though the government rate is $100 per room—compared to upwards of $130 for others—the city-subsidized guests also abide by a set of rules different from the tourists': They eat breakfast in a separate room and aren't allowed to take the hotel's free shuttle to Union Station.

But $100 per night does not represent a good deal for the District, which winds up paying around $20,000 a day for the entire population. That could total a couple million by the end of the season, even as DHS rushes to build out 100 more rooms at D.C. General. And though the Comfort Inn beats being on the street, it's hardly a great spot for the families themselves. On a sunny Saturday morning, young women with toddlers in tow scuttle back and forth across busy New York Avenue to catch a bus or pick something up at the liquor store. They're not allowed to cook in their rooms, so it's microwave or nothing.

Still, when word spread that the city was putting families up in hotels, people in unstable housing situations decided it was better than where they were staying. "I've heard people in the lobby, calling their girlfriends, saying 'bring this and bring that, and you can get in. Bring your boyfriend, too,'" says Sharmaine Walton, 32, a young daughter by her side. "The moms had the babies and they were in public housing. And now the babies are having babies, and they want their freedom. Somebody put the word out: 'You want housing? Go to Virginia Williams,'" the intake center on Rhode Island Avenue NE.

The clamor to get in also underlines the amount of housing insecurity in a comparatively robust real estate market. The women who wind up at Comfort Inn might be staying with a cousin or a boyfriend or a grandparent, but a foreclosure or an episode of domestic violence could set them adrift in a city where the gap between a homeless shelter and a market-rate apartment is often too wide to jump.

Walton, for example, says she was pulling down $20 an hour as a medical assistant. But, she says, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, and can't work when the symptoms kick in. She and her boyfriend have lost three apartments. "I feel like I'm a productive citizen," Walton says, over the sound of rushing cars. "I don't know what to do. I did everything right. That's all I know."


For people like Walton, doing the right thing always involves one basic step: Getting on the D.C. Housing Authority's waiting list, either for a unit of public housing, a voucher that can be spent anywhere in the city and even outside of it,* or both. The list is a universal fact of life for the families at D.C. General and the Comfort Inn. Many got on when they turned 18, figuring that it was their best chance for a stable place to live, even if it took ten years.

The problem with the list is that it's an almost incomprehensible number. The line for just vouchers was 49,582 households long in 2007. Then officials cleaned it up with a mass mailing requiring a response to keep your spot. That brought the number down to 20,000. But it had grown back to 37,635 by the end of last year with about 13,000 total vouchers in the system.

How can you tell how far you are from the top of the list? You can't. Officials won't tell you where you're ranked, because it's constantly changing: Different kinds of units turn over at different rates, and totally homeless people will get housed before someone who says they have a place to stay. All they can tell you is what year they're pulling from. Right now, it's 2003.

It's not just a constant reality for families. The list is also full of single people like John (he declined to give his last name), who started a five-year jail term for drugs in 1999, got out in 2003, went through a halfway house before offending again, did another five years, and has been living in a men's shelter since summer of 2010. He's now about to get off probation, but is still on the housing list after eight years. With his kind of record, in this kind of job market, his chances of making enough money to pay for his own apartment are slim.

"People told me to get on the list, so that's what I did," says John. "I knew it was going to be a wait, but I didn't know it was going to be this long."

In the meantime, officials are only clearing the list at a rate of about 200 per month, according to the Housing Authority. The city has fallen far short of the goals it set forth in a 2006 plan for affordable housing, and the feds haven't helped out much either, issuing no new housing choice vouchers for the last three years and reducing the number of grants available for public housing construction. Instead, the city has simply doubled its shelter capacity since 2008, going from 75 to 250 family slots at D.C. General—which now houses a total of about 750 people.

"Because we keep adding more and more shelter beds, we don't view it as inadequate shelter capacity, we view it as inadequate affordable housing," says DHS director David Berns. "There's a front door, and no back door."

Until the District gets serious about funding affordable housing, Housing Authority executive director Adrianne Todman is trying to shorten the waiting list by convincing people to give their subsidies to someone else. Though most officials will say public housing and vouchers aren't supposed to be a permanent benefit, there's no time limit on either, which Todman says won't change in this political environment. Instead, she's working on counseling initiatives to change the culture—at least for the kind of young people who've found themselves staying at the Comfort Inn.

"How do you work with families who do have the capacity to move on? There's a feeling that's built up. 'What if I get sick? What if I lose my job?' If you live in public housing, you're good," Todman says. "The next frontier is working with people and getting past the generational concept that 'this is what I do.'"  CP

Read more about what's next here and here.

Visit the Housing Complex blog every day at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex. Got a real-estate tip? Send suggestions to ldepillis@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or 202-650-6928

* Corrected to reflect the fact that housing choice vouchers can be spent anywhere, not just in the District.

  • CapitalTruck

    No time limits on public housing? That's pretty bad. Women with kids should be out when their kids turn 18. Only the children that were listed when they originally "checked" in would qualify as their "child". This is a completely unsustainable situation. There will never be enough housing options as long as there is no time limit on vouchers or public housing residency.

    With the exception of mental/physical disability or school-aged kids, public housing should have a time limit.

    This Todman person seems pretty good.

  • teamtango

    build it (or create more capcity)and they will come!

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  • arg

    DC's public assistance and welfare policies are the most generaous in the nation. DC is the ONLY jurisdiction in the US that didn't adopt a 5 year time limit on welfare back in the 90's. Consequently, 45% of the cityies welfare receipients have been on welfare for more than 5 years, 30% more than 8 years.

    DC's shelters have long been overun with people from MD, and VA, and one wonders how many of those we put up in hotels for half the year aren't even District residents.

    Social safety nets are great and I am a firm believer in them, but what we have in DC isn't a "net", it is a way of life. Our system is all carrot and no stick. The generations of welfare receipients in DC have no reason, no catalyst to get off the public dole, or to be smarter about having a bunch of kids when you are already on welfare because they know it is the Districts policy to just keep paying and reward any and all for whatever bad mistakes they like to make.

  • oboe

    a voucher that can be spent anywhere in the city

    I'm curious: why is it that DCHA vouchers can only be spent in the city? Why limit people's choices?

  • oboe

    From DCHA:

    The Housing Choice Voucher Tenant-Based Program provides rental assistance to eligible families or individuals who find their own housing (single-family homes, townhouses and apartments) as long it meets the requirements of the program. If participants want to move to another location, they simply apply to take their voucher with them to a new home, even out of state.


  • City Dude

    2 months ago I saw a contract go out to 2nd street shelter people for $20 Million ..I don't know what that was for??

  • ladyblue

    No time limits on public housing? That's pretty bad. Women with kids should be out when their kids turn 18. Only the children that were listed when they originally "checked" in would qualify as their "child". I'll was on this list for 30yrs and still didn't recieved a voucher. I filled out the form with updated information every year on my birthday and still havn't heard from Housing. Last year on my birthday I didn't recieved any paper work, so I call guest what they took my name off the list. Now I am physical disability and thank God my children have been around to help. But I know it would be nice for them to live thier on life without helping me all the time. I to work as a single mom, didn't ask for you to give me anything just help. If rent control was still in DC you wouldn't have so many homless people. At $10.00 hour and rent $900.00 plus ult. where can you go.

  • Ward 6 Resident

    I've seen the residents of DC General trash our community for the last year and at all hours of the day or night.

    Dirty pampers in tree boxes or on the sidewalks, all night drinking binges in our neighborhood parks with children in strollers, empty wine and liquor bottles on the sidewalks and in the street, women smoking crack in the alleys hiding the drugs in the pockets of the strollers and young men sitting behind residences smoking pot and an assortment of used empty nickel bags littering the sidewalks.

    How do we know these fine citizens are from DC General? We follow them and take pictures to document where they come from. This activity goes on until 3 or 4 am on a daily basis. The MPD and DC Protective Services spend a lot of time policing the area and making arrests. DC Protective Services reports an averasge of 35 to 40 arrests for assults monthly in DC General. Meanwhile the provider of services at DC General report all is well!

    So Lydia, save your bleeding heart for another story and spare us. We know the truth. And by the way Lydia, just where do you live?

  • Typical DC BS

    Finally, a DC government official (Adrienne Todman) who GETS IT. This program is supposed to provide temporary help, not provide a lifetime of subsidized housing. DC fell into the poverty pimping and never realized that permanent dependency on the government for healthy adults just creates an entitlement attitude and laziness.

    And she also said that the current political climate wouldn't allow a change in this ideology (i.e. a 5 year time limit)? And we wonder why DC government is so expensive and disfunctional. When you enable adults who should be supporting themselves to depend on government hand-outs, you remove any incentive to improve their lives. Carrot and stick, as noted above, definitely lacking.

  • NJpob

    I have cooperated with DCHA before being placed on a supposed "inactive list" they will not tell me if I remain on the list or not.

  • WillWorkforTodman

    Adrianne Todman for Mayor in 2014!

  • Lydia DePillis


    You're right, thanks for the correction. It's been fixed.

  • William Ogle

    Actually, the District has implemented a way to get people off housing vouchers.

    I NEVER meet with District employees without recording it. Thus, I can backup what I'm going to write.

    Over the past 7 years I have been told by employees of DCHA on three separate occasions that I did not deserve to have a Housing Choice Voucher. In fact, one employee was quite straight forward in her remarks: "I'm going to do everything I can to get this voucher from you. No white man should have one until all our people have one."

    DCHA is currently attempting to implement that threat. In a few weeks time I will have the opportunity to convince DCHA that a disabled person in deteriorating health should not be thrown into the streets just for being white.

  • So Sick of It

    All of this chatter about unavailable housing makes me crazy. We have a house that we've been trying to rent since last December. The house is gorgeous. Ready for sale at just under $400K but we're not giving it away after all the blood, sweat and tears put into it, so we wnat to rent it. Somehow, after two inspections by DCHA, the house is not "good enough" for their section 8 clients. The first inspection we failed for a list of minor things. We spent money and corrected everything on the list. The second inspection came up, a different inspector came in. He said that he would pass us on all the things the first inspector noted but then went on to list about 10 other things that he says the first inspector should have caught - also minor non safety things. One of the things was the carpet in the basement. It had a stain on it. Not good enough. The whole carpet needs to be replaced. My husband said that was crazy. The inspector said that if he passed it and the people moved in, the first thing they would do is call downtown and complain about a stain on the carpet and how terrible that is.

    I get it. The people using vouchers deserve a clean and safe place to live. They're not rats. They're human beings with a basic human need. That being said, give me a damn break! My family lived quite well in that house for 12 years. My children were born to that house. The only reason we don't still live in it is because we're out of state. If there's such a crunch, why does something as small as a stain in the carpet (not a safety hazard) prevent them from having a family move in? Why not make non-safety issues just like when you're renting a car. You go around the car, the rental agent lists all the defects already there, if you bring it back in the same condition, great. If you damage it further, you pay. Seems simple to me. If there are non-safety issues that need to be addressed, why not let the people move in and give the landlord a deadline to address those small issues? If we don't have rental income, how the hell are we supposed to pay for this stuff?

    So D.C. would rather pay $2,000 in 20 days for a family to stay in a hotel, than pay $2,000 for them to live in a house where they can cook and eat and sleep in peace. That's the District of Calamity for you.

  • Concerned

    There likely is a detailed checklist that's available to owners wanting to rent to Section 8, as most jurisdictions have such a check list for those participants, when they're looking for a rental; Also, If the whole truth is a stain on the carpet, then that should not constitute a safety hazard nor health hazard;You're correct as well, that a move in inspection with any "deficiencies" noted by the tenant would also address same, with acknowledgement of mere receipt by the landlord; seems like the Inspector is not fully knowledgeable of Section 8/Voucher inspection standards, in citing the mere possibility of tenant complaints, as that's NOT the standards of Section 8 Inspection/habitability standards.

  • So Sick of It

    There is a detailed checklist and we went over everything. The fact that one inspector came in and cited a list of things (and we which we fixed them all) and then another inspector came in and cited another list is ridiculous and aggravating.

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  • http://lauluvaljak.ee/korraldad-sundmust/ruumide-rent/ Ruumide Rent

    Wow, this is first time i hear, that government rents rooms for homeless people.. Really nice, it should be made compulsorary in other countries as well..
    In my country Estonia, I think we have special dormitories for that, so it is at least something!

    I remember last winter, which was extremely tough, and I remebeber that there were many homeless people just freezing to death in Lithuania, scary.. Hope that this year, the accommodation systems are better and the winter is better as well!

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