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Washington DC Rent Subsidy Enriches 'Slumlords' at Expense of Capital's Poorest

© AP Photo / Patrick Semansky / A tent and debris sit in McPherson Square in WashingtonA tent and debris sit in McPherson Square in Washington
A tent and debris sit in McPherson Square in Washington - Sputnik International, 1920, 27.03.2023
While US President Joe Biden was visiting his ally Justin Trudeau in Canada, the crisis of homelessness and slum housing in the US capital deepens. Will Merrifield, Director of the Center for Social Housing and Public Investment, explained how a scheme to help poor renters has only made things worse.
A rent subsidy for low-income residents of Washington DC has reduced public housing stock while leaving tenants at the mercy of 'slumlords', an expert has said.
Will Merrifield spoke to Sputnik after a report exposed how one housing developer bought up cheap tenement buildings, divided them into smaller dwellings to maximise the number of tenants and then profited from the District of Colombia Housing Authority (DCHA) housing programme programme. Residents found themselves in cramped apartments with broken appliances, heating and air conditioning and water damage so bad that in one case a kitchen cabinet fell off the wall onto a 12-year-old's head.
He said the voucher scheme had been lauded by politicians and "housing advocates" as the solution to the affordable housing crisis, but at the same time has been used as "justification for the demolition and the disinvestment in public housing for a number of years."
The vouchers entitle a potential tenant to a 70 per cent government subsidy on the rent they pay to a private landlord.
But following criticism that the DCHA was paying too much to house people under the scheme, they and the federal government set caps on the subsidy dubbed "payment standards"
"They say in this neighborhood, we will pay this amount of money to a voucher holder to go try to find the landlord." Merrifield explained. but "in very highly gentrified and expensive parts of the city... you just can't find an apartment that lands within that payment standard."
That "creates a subprime market for slumlords," he argued.
DC has "created such a mess with their under-production of affordable housing, their demolition of public housing," Merrifield said, that for years hotels along the city's New York Avenue were used to accommodate homeless families with no prospect of finding them permanent homes.
"What they have done is they started to push these families out and they are pushing them into this subprime slumlord market," the campaigner said. "they're either they're either in a situation where they have to overpay for reputable landlords, or push people into the subprime market because the system is completely broken."
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The public watchdogs meant to protect residents from unscrupulous landlords also proved toothless, he said.
"What we saw very quickly was that the government inspectors were either intentionally or unintentionally doing such a poor job, that was actually hurting our ability to get repairs made because the inspectors would not do their due diligence," Merrifield said.
His organisation hade to hire private inspectors to get accurate reports for a lawsuit to take properties into receivership, and transfer them to new developers to build safe housing. "The whole process took about a decade and now it is just a very small portfolio of housing," he added.
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