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In The Midst Of Housing Crisis, Why Is D.C. Selling Off Public Housing?

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The renovated living room of 1452 Euclid St. NW, a rowhouse long owned by the D.C. Housing Authority that was recently sold for $920,000.
Courtesy of MLS
The renovated living room of 1452 Euclid St. NW, a rowhouse long owned by the D.C. Housing Authority that was recently sold for $920,000.

The real estate listing for 1452 Euclid Street NW is pretty typical for a rowhouse in one of D.C.’s hottest neighborhoods. It's listed as a “stunning renovation” with granite countertops and tainless steel appliances. The selling price for this four-bedroom home? Just under $1 million.

Until recently, this was public housing, owned by the city, and rented out to some of its poorest residents. D.C. once owned hundreds of houses like this scattered across the city. The District is now in the process of renovating and selling the last two dozen.

WAMU 88.5's Martin Austermuhle reported on these sales earlier this week, and joined us to discuss why, in the midst of an affordable housing crunch, the city is selling off public housing.

Rebecca Sheir: So, the city once owned more than 300 houses like this. What’s the backstory here?

Martin Austermuhle: The two houses that sold last month are part of D.C.’s stock of what are known as “scattered sites” — single-family homes owned by cities or their public housing agencies and used as an alternative to traditional public housing.

Scattered sites came into vogue across the country in the 1950s and 1960s, after local and federal officials determined that the massive public housing complexes of the day did a better job of concentrating problems associated with poverty rather than help resolve them. The idea of the scattered-site program was to house the poor in middle-class neighborhoods, where they could be better integrated into the daily flow of city life.

In D.C., the scattered sites also served a secondary purpose.

After the devastating 1968 riots, the government could cheaply buy the homes and move in low- and moderate-income families as a means to help spur revitalization and redevelopment. The houses were purchased by the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency, which had been created decades prior to help eliminate slums citywide.

RS: The city started selling off these “scattered sites” back in the ‘90s. Was the program not working out, or was it a financial decision?

MA: Well, as the years went on, what started as a well-intentioned housing policy for the city’s low-income families was plagued by mismanagement. The city couldn’t adequately keep track of the homes, much less provide basic maintenance.

By the late 1980s, civic activists had identified dozens of scattered-site houses in Columbia Heights alone that were run down and had become havens for drugs and crime, worsening the blight the program was supposed to help resolve. In some cases, not even police were aware that the homes — long known for being eyesores and magnets for crime — were owned by the same city that employed them.

By the mid-1990s, a federally appointed board charged with salvaging D.C.’s finances decided to start selling off the scattered sites, first by transferring ownership of them to the newly created — and fully independent — D.C. Housing Authority and then working with nonprofit developers to sell them.

Kerry Smyser, who's with the D.C. Housing Authority, recently told me that more recently the decision was made to sell the remaining homes because it was too expensive to maintain them.

“For years, Congress has underfunded the public housing program, which makes in difficult to maintain public housing developments and multifamily buildings, let alone single family homes that are scattered throughout the city," she says.

RS: This is happening at a time when the city has a huge shortage of affordable housing, and the houses being sold are located in neighborhoods where many longtime residents are being priced out. What are housing advocates saying about this?

MA: Some say that it's a needed step for the Housing Authority, which needs more money to fix up existing public housing. But others, like Parisa Norouzi of Empower D.C., say it's only further fueling the gentrification that has swept across D.C.

“Here we have the agency that’s in charge of housing people in need, actually acting as a house flipper and a developer and promoting gentrification in the sense of putting housing in the market that’s at the top possible cost. A million dollars! Not even so-called workforce housing, not even housing for somebody of moderate income, much less low income,” she says.

But Smyser of the Housing Authority defends the practice.

“We want to preserve and create more affordable housing in the District, and it’s expensive to build a public housing unit. And second, we don’t want to be in a position where we put a low or moderate income family where they can’t afford to pay the taxes or insurance. So we don’t want to set anybody up for failure here," she says.

RS: It seems like the “scattered sites” idea was ahead of its time in a way. Nowadays, the city is actually planning to demolish several of its big public housing complexes to build mixed-income developments. Why do you think it didn’t work?

MA: It certainly was ahead of its time, but it required oversight and management that some housing agencies couldn't provide, especially with limited resources.

But for her part, Norouzi says the D.C. Housing Authority just gave up.

“I think it’s just another example of the purposeful neglect on the part of the housing agency that is invested in the city’s vision of displacing the poor and promoting gentrification and attracting higher-income people," she says.

Music: "Every Little Bit Hurts" by Title Tracks from It Was Easy / "House Where Nobody Lives" by Tom Waits from Mule Variations

Music: "Every Little Bit Hurts" by Title Tracks from It Was Easy / "House Where Nobody Lives" by Tom Waits from Mule Variations

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