Peter Jamison, Washington Post, April 18, 2019
Built in 1931, Sedgwick Gardens rises on Connecticut Avenue NW less than a mile north of the National Zoo. Past an elegant stone carriage porch is a cavernous lobby, ringed by Moorish arches and featuring a fountain of marble and blue tile, that could be the setting for a scene in a Raymond Chandler novel.
Until recently, the building was occupied by a quiet mix of tenants made up primarily of couples and single apartment dwellers, said Carren Kaston, a former literature professor who has lived at the complex for more than three decades and is president of the Sedgwick Gardens Tenant Association.
That began to change about two years ago.
In late 2016, the board of the D.C. Housing Authority — which sets payment standards for vouchers issued in the city — increased the maximum value of vouchers to 175 percent of fair market rent, as set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That meant vouchers could be used for one-bedroom apartments renting at up to $2,648 a month, according to Housing Authority documents. At Sedgwick Gardens, the going rate for one-bedroom units was about $2,200 per month in 2017, according to a former tenant who moved in that year without public assistance.
Tenants with vouchers pay 30 percent of whatever income they have toward rent, with the city subsidizing the rest.
The move came in a city desperate to offer its residents more affordable living options — and to move the chronically homeless off the street. At the last official count in 2018, there were 6,904 homeless people in the District, which has a population of just over 700,000. A recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the District has experienced the most intense gentrification of any city in the country.
Naimah Simkins, the former property manager at Sedgwick Gardens, said that in early 2017, she listed basement units she was having trouble leasing on a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website. Soon, there was a trickle of formerly homeless or low-income veterans bearing vouchers issued by the D.C. government.
Cleveland Park is a bastion of urbane liberalism where just 1 in 20 voters supported President Trump in the 2016 election. Yet from the beginning, Simkins said, it was clear that some of the building’s older residents were discomfited by the new basement dwellers.
There were 121 calls for police service at Sedgwick Gardens in 2018, up from 34 in 2016. City officials said despite that volume, officers determined just five times last year that a crime had taken place. Still, a number of the incidents left residents rattled.
Tenants say they have also confronted a slew of less serious nuisances such as panhandling, marijuana smoke in the halls and feces discovered on a landing in the stairwell.
Diane McWhorter, a Sedgwick Gardens resident and author of “Carry Me Home,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about segregation and the civil rights movement, said bureaucratic bungling was undermining the laudable aims of the voucher programs.
McWhorter said landlords also have little incentive to turn away tenants unfit for independent living because the vouchers guarantee them rents in excess of market rates.
And there is an added perk. In buildings such as Sedgwick Gardens, where many older tenants pay less for rent-stabilized units, apartments that are let out to tenants receiving public assistance don’t revert to rent control once those tenants leave. Last year, the D.C. Council took action to close this loophole, but the law has not yet gone into effect.
A spokeswoman for Daro, which owns and manages Sedgwick Gardens, said the company had not taken steps either “to solicit or discourage voucher holders from applying” and noted that it was illegal for landlords to discriminate against tenants receiving government rental subsidies.
For decades, the homeless often faced obstacles in the search for long-term housing. Among them was the mind-set that issues such as chronic mental illness or addiction should be under control before people became eligible to live outside shelters or group homes.
“Housing first” revolutionized that attitude. Backed by a formidable body of research showing that it reduces chronic homelessness, it has become the dominant philosophy in the District and many other cities.
“Housing is therapeutic in and of itself, and there should be no behavioral barriers to access to housing,” said Jay Melder, the District’s assistant city administrator for internal services. “Housing first is a best practice, nationwide.”
But as that practice spreads, some are urging caution against a one-size-fits-all attitude.
Particularly for those who have endured prolonged bouts of homelessness or mental illness, the approach is risky, said David Buck, associate dean of community health at the University of Houston College of Medicine.
While studies clearly support the effectiveness of housing-first programs, Buck said, they can fall apart when participants don’t get the follow-up care they need.
Government officials and advocates for the homeless “want one answer for everyone,” Buck said. “Housing first and just the voucher works great for some people. But for people who are chronically mentally ill or chronically homeless . . . those people don’t do as well just jumping in.”
A majority of the D.C. Council is backing a bill, introduced by Nadeau, that would require buildings with at least 20 units and 30 percent or more of them occupied by tenants receiving housing assistance to offer on-site access to social services such as health care, nutrition counseling and child care. Nadeau said the bill did not arise in response to complaints about Sedgwick Gardens.
Melder noted that only a portion of the voucher holders at Sedgwick Gardens are formerly homeless or in need of ongoing social services. Some, including families, simply qualified for public assistance because of their low incomes.
Case managers were assigned to those who required services, he said, even before the city began stationing social workers at the building two months ago.
But Sedgwick Gardens tenants say some of their new neighbors seem lost.