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The Washington Post: Fire displaced families in D.C. housing program. Some call it a blessing.

November 24, 2023

Family checks out new apartment.

Meagan Flynn of The Washington Post reports on challenges faced by families living in a rapid rehousing program apartment complex. Children’s Law Center Director of Special Legal Projects Kathy Zeisel spoke about how the system failed these families – who are now displaced by a recent fire, and how increased enforcement could ensure fixes are made to keep children and families safe and healthy.

Ellis and Plowden are among the hundreds of families each year who cycle through the District’s Family Re-Housing Stabilization Program, better known as rapid rehousing, while often enduring poor and hazardous housing conditions. But landlords often have little incentive to address housing code violations under a D.C. enforcement system that can be lengthy and ultimately toothless insofar as compelling meaningful relief for tenants, council members and housing advocates say.  

Families may find options are limited because of a rent cap — but also a reticence among some landlords to rent to families in the program for the very reasons that caused them to become homeless in the first place, such as an eviction on their record, said Kathy Zeisel, director of special legal projects at Children’s Law Center, which has handled scores of housing court cases for rapid-rehousing families, including Ellis’s. 

“Her case is really emblematic of all the system’s failings,” Zeisel said of Ellis’s experience. She noted that city building inspectors had been out to the property numerous times over the past two years before the fire, the cause of which the D.C. fire department said is undetermined. Ellis’s unit and others had failed numerous inspections — and yet there was “nothing happening to improve the situation.”

Ellis met lawyers with the Children’s Law Center after a visit to Children’s National Hospital, where she had taken her son for severe asthma problems. Zeisel said the center tried to help Ellis compel repairs to her unit in court in June, but in August, weeks before the fire, the case was dismissed at Ellis’s request: She believed her energy would be better spent trying to move. 

It’s Time for Healthier and Safer Housing for all DC Residents

When a child lives in unhealthy housing, they are more likely to end up in the ER because their poor housing conditions trigger health issues like asthma. That’s why Children’s Law Center partners with organizations across the city to advocate for healthier housing so that all DC children have the safe housing they need to live healthy lives.

Healthy Housing

Photo credit: Meagan Flynn/The Washington Post