A recent article in the Washington City Paper highlights a growing problem in the District: landlords are exploiting city funds by renting apartments with unlawful housing conditions to low income individuals with government subsidized housing vouchers. In a city where the supply of decent, safe, and affordable housing is steadily disappearing, residents with housing vouchers are left with few choices. Landlords know this. They also know that if they rent to these often desperate individuals, they can get a steady stream of income each month from the government, without having to ensure that their apartments comply with the housing code.
For example, D.C.’s Attorney General has sued Sanford Capital—a company that owns hundreds of units across the city—two times over the dangerous housing code violations that exist at two of its properties. Despite these lawsuits, the District’s Department of Human Services (“DHS”) estimates that 114 families receiving housing subsidies through its agency are living in Sanford properties. Additionally, the D.C. Housing Authority (“DCHA”) estimates that at least 225 of its voucher clients live in Sanford-owned properties. Based on these numbers alone, the Washington City Paper estimates that the District, at a minimum, is paying Sanford $340,000 each month, while accusing Sanford of engaging in a “pattern of neglect” at its properties in court.
This news is not surprising to tenant advocates. To landlords more interested in the bottom line than in maintaining their properties, tenants with housing vouchers are appealing. Unlike other tenants, a person with a voucher cannot withhold the government’s portion of his or her rent each month until the landlord makes repairs. This leaves these tenants with little or no leverage to pressure their landlords into complying with the law. Instead, as the City Paper article describes, these tenants are forced to live in apartments with life threatening conditions such as mold, serious pest infestation, leaks, and no heat in the winter. These are conditions that no one should have to bare, and the government should not be enriching landlords who refuse to repair them.
There are various ways the District could begin to address this problem. At a minimum, agencies such as DHS and DCHA could refuse to place tenant vouchers with landlords that they know to be bad actors. In the meanwhile, Legal Aid will continue to prioritize representation of matters involving individuals with housing vouchers, through its Housing Right to Counsel Project, as a means of protecting and enforcing the rights of tenants whose subsidies—and very means of affording a roof over their heads in the first place—are most at risk.