The Housing First strategy—get people into housing then deal with their problems—for dealing with the homeless, is one we support, but it has to be done right, with adequate available support through the entire process, which, apparently was not done in this effort, as reported by the Washington Post.
The SWAT team, the overdose, the complaints of pot smoke in the air and feces in the stairwell — it would be hard to pinpoint a moment when things took a turn for the worse at Sedgwick Gardens, a stately apartment building in Northwest Washington.
Police officers and social workers have become a regular sight in the lobby of Sedgwick Gardens, a landmark apartment building in affluent Cleveland Park where many tenants now receive rental subsidies
Police officers and social workers have become a regular sight in the lobby of Sedgwick Gardens, a landmark apartment building in affluent Cleveland Park where many tenants now receive rental subsidies.
But the Art Deco complex, which overlooks Rock Creek Park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is today the troubled locus of a debate on housing policy in a city struggling with the twin crises of homelessness and gentrification.
Located in affluent Cleveland Park and designed by Mihran Mesrobian — the prewar architect behind such Washington landmarks as the Hay-Adams Hotel — Sedgwick Gardens was once out of reach for low-income District residents.
That changed two years ago, when D.C. housing officials dramatically increased the value of rental subsidies. The goal was to give tenants who had previously clustered in impoverished, high-crime areas east of the Anacostia River a shot at living in more desirable neighborhoods.
At Sedgwick Gardens, the effort met with wild success. As of February, tenants with city-issued housing vouchers had filled nearly half of the building’s roughly 140 units.
Mixed-income developments aren’t rare in the District, where officials often require that new buildings preserve some space for working-class residents.
But the situation at Sedgwick Gardens is different: Many of the new tenants are previously homeless men and women who came directly from shelters or the streets, some still struggling with severe behavioral problems.
The result has been a high-stakes social experiment that so far has left few of its subjects happy. Police visits to the building have nearly quadrupled since 2016. Some tenants have fled. In February, responding to complaints, the city began staffing the building with social workers at night to deal with problems that arise.
Some tenants with vouchers say they have been made to feel unwelcome by their new neighbors, a dynamic that has unavoidable undertones of race and class in a largely white neighborhood.
More established tenants contend that they support the goals of the voucher program, but that it has gone badly awry at Sedgwick Gardens, transforming the building into a dumping ground for people unprepared to live on their own.
Even some Sedgwick Gardens residents who receive public assistance say the complex was colonized by the city’s housing programs too rapidly and without sufficient oversight.
“It’s not about the voucher program. It’s not about racism. It’s about people’s conduct and behavior,” said Lorraine Starkes, 61, a formerly homeless woman who moved into Sedgwick Gardens using a voucher about two years ago.
Starkes, who is black, said some of her fellow tenants with vouchers were not properly screened by city officials before moving in. Now, she said, those residents have overwhelmed her new home and “are trying to turn it into a ghetto.”
The drama within Sedgwick Gardens’s red-brick walls exposes challenges and contradictions in the “housing first” policies for reducing homelessness that have been adopted by the District and many other cities.
That approach calls for placing the homeless in long-term housing without first requiring treatment for mental illness or addiction. Many experts say it is the best way to help people who have trouble helping themselves amid the chaos of homelessness.
But as housing first has emerged as a national policy consensus, some have begun to warn that it is being applied too broadly and at times with inadequate support for people who aren’t ready for the independence and responsibilities of living by themselves.
City officials insist those mistakes have not been made at Sedgwick Gardens, calling the disturbing incidents isolated cases.
“I think the reason the issues at Sedgwick Gardens came to a head is that there were a couple of residents that were causing a problem. That could have been true whether they had a voucher or not,” said D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who chairs the council’s Committee on Human Services. “I want us to be careful not to demonize everyone who finds stable housing through a subsidy because not everybody who needs a subsidy is a criminal.”
Sedgwick Gardens is now nearly half-occupied with tenants who use housing-assistance vouchers.