(Part One of a Two-Part Series)
Charlie Mayfield hasn't had a place to call home for more than eight years.
A District resident on a fixed income, he said he had been waiting on the D.C. Housing Authority to find suitable accommodations for him. Mayfield insists that he had been waiting for almost a decade for a voucher before he finally gave up hope and turned elsewhere for help in finding an affordable place to live.
"Somebody wasn't doing their job," Mayfield said. "Their job was just to keep you waiting."
Mayfield, 78, manages to live on little more than $600 a month from Social Security benefits.
"They would call you. Then you would have to wait another year before they would call you again. They always tell you how many people they have on the waiting list. That went on for eight years," he said.
That tainted his view of the agency and bolstered his belief that the agency is ill prepared to create affordable housing for the city's low-and middle-income families. Mayfield also doubts the sincerity of the agency's efforts to tackle the problem.
"They don't care if they get you in a place or not," he said. "They keep telling you something to make you think that you are going to get a place."
Regardless of who's to blame, Mayfield is a victim of the numbers game that entangles the agency.
Currently, 45,000 applicants are on the Authority's waiting list for a rent subsidy voucher. The authority only issues a mere 200 vouchers each year.
Housing Authority Executive Director Adrianne Todman had high hopes of tackling the city's affordable housing crisis when she took the helm of the agency in December 2010. But the hope of meeting the pressing demands of the issue has slipped from her grasp.
"If someone applies today, they actually believe they are going to be housed in a reasonable amount of time. And that's just not going to happen," said Todman, during an interview at her North Capitol Street office. "In so many ways that's unfair for families and individuals who are vulnerable to begin with, to have a sense of hope for something that is not possible in terms of receiving a voucher."
"I keep saying to folk there are 45,000 people on the waiting list. I would become the Queen of Sheba if I could house all 45,000 tomorrow," Todman said. "It is not a lack of desire, but the capacity to [meet] that need just isn't there."
Todman, 42, said that she believes the affordable housing shortage can be solved through a multi-faceted approach, including job training and providing educational opportunities for low-income families.
But the authority, she said, needs a broader, more fundamental change. She is a proponent of "trying to find ways to help families become more self-sufficient." Last year, the authority spent more than $135 million in rent assistance payments for low-income families.
"If they're unemployed, how can we help [them] get a job working with the Department of Employment Services?" Todman asked. "If you're underemployed how do we work with our partners at the community college [level] to get you additional skills, so you can get a better job?"
Todman also can't shake the idea that some low-income families' fear of moving out of public housing adds to their woes and limits their options.
Today, she knows it's harder to find jobs, but she said low-income families should strive anyway, as she and others did growing up in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands where conditions were comparable or worse.
"One of the things that we would need to do is say, 'You know what, yes, it's a risk, but you have the capacity to not live at Barry Farm or Benning or Woodlawn. You can live somewhere else that may be better for you,'" Todman said.
Todman used sociology to explain what she calls the "safety net system of poverty." She said the reliance of the poor on social services programs keeps them in poverty, not the failure of the economic system to produce livable wage jobs.
Instead, the poor, she said, should fix their sight on "things they can do for themselves."
"Some of it is having the confidence; some of it is having life mentoring. 'I know you can do better. I know you can. I know you can because other families, who have come from more dire situations, have done better,'" Todman said. "How do we crack that shell? If I had the answer to that I would be able to solve the poverty issue in this country. I don't have the one answer."
Todman recognizes that there are critics who are pressing for change in her agency, despite the many accomplishments that it has made.
She spends much of her time defending the agency to critics who are witnessing their communities being transformed.
"There are certain pockets of the city where folk say, 'Oh look, the housing authority has played a role in reducing the amount of affordable units that are available by tearing them down,'" Todman said. "And that's just not the case."
Over the span of a decade, she said, the agency went from 5,000 habital public housing units to near 8,000 units that are available. And on the voucher side, the number of families participating in the voucher program jumped from 5,000 to 12,000 families.
Still, there are significant numbers of low-income families waiting for affordable housing in the city's poorest neighborhoods where rents are rising and wages are sinking. Demand is also high for beds at the D.C. General Homeless Shelter in Southeast where there is overcrowding. About 200 homeless families have been shuffled from there to the Comfort Inn or the nearby Howard Johnson on New York Avenue in Northeast, waiting to be placed in permanent housing.
"So, if you're homeless we can find a way to house you. Then, we work with you, so that you're able to stabilize the situation and try to do better," Todman said.