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District Loses Grip on Affordable Housing

WI Staff Writer | , Joseph Young | 5/16/2012, 11:46 a.m.

(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?"