Centering DC Public Housing Residents in COVID-19 Response Can Help Address Racial Inequities


Recent protests in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many Black people before them, as well as COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people of color, are bringing renewed calls to examine how to dismantle systemic racism in the US. Improving public housing—and the lives of public housing residents—is one concrete area that could help address the nation’s long history of racial inequity.

COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black people is evident in DC. Seventy-one percent of DC residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 identify as Black or two or more races, and Black people account for 74 percent of fatalities in the city. But Black people account for less than half of the city’s population. Ward 8—where 92 percent of residents are Black—has the third-most positive COVID-19 cases (1,394) of all DC wards and the most deaths (20 percent of the city’s total), despite composing 10 percent of DC’s population.

DC public housing residents are particularly at risk. Ninety-eight percent of DC public housing residents are Black, and public housing residents in general are at higher risk of health and economic repercussions during the pandemic because they are more likely to have lower incomes, be employed in high-risk jobs deemed essential, and lack quality health care access.

We talked with DC Housing Authority (DCHA) residents about how they are helping each other during the COVID-19 crisis and about how investing in public housing and centering residents in pandemic responses can help address long-standing racial inequities.

How DC public housing residents are supporting each other during the pandemic

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act authorized funding for critical housing, homelessness, and community development programs for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other public housing authorities, DCHA is using these funds to continue basic functions and protect residents and staff. But community-based organizations and public housing residents are taking further steps to help each other weather the pandemic.

Assistance with food and household items

In Benning Terrace, a DCHA community that Urban has been closely collaborating with since 2011, the local grocery store popular among residents recently closed, and people without access to a car struggled to buy food. As a result, the emergency assistance organizations East River Family Strengthening Collaborative and the United Planning Organization have launched efforts to support Benning Terrace residents with meals and groceries.

Many public housing residents also rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to purchase food and household necessities every month. But it’s impossible to stockpile toilet paper or purchase an extra two weeks’ worth of food and supplies on a limited or fixed income. Though one of our resident partners, Ms. Dawn, is fighting to keep her 11 children fed, she is also coordinating deliveries of donated groceries to other families living in Richardson Dwellings, another DCHA community,  to make sure her neighbors can meet their basic needs.

At other DCHA sites, including Potomac Gardens, Hopkins, and Woodland Terrace, community-based organizations such as Little Lights, Brothas Huddle, and the Exodus Treatment Center have quickly turned into emergency relief providers. They are not only attempting to adapt their regular services into supports offered online or by phone (including virtual summer camps), but they are also coordinating delivery of necessary household items, connection to Wi-Fi, and access to technology. And they are using these moments to take stock of how people are holding up.

Mental health supports

Seeing COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black people has resulted in many Black public housing residents facing heightened anxiety. And many parents and caregivers are struggling without access to child care and are dealing with the stress of providing for their families as many lose their jobs or are required to face the risk of infection at their “essential” jobs.

Adequate mental health services are scarce for low-income communities in general, but DC public housing residents told us the pandemic is contributing to the normalization of seeking mental health supports—but only through people they know and trust.

Community facilitators for the Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety program implemented by Sasha Bruce Youthwork in various DCHA sites are conducting regular check-ins with teens. Sasha Bruce staff, Tamica and Ronyae, have ramped up their interactions via social media to get a feel for how teens and their parents are handling the consequences of the pandemic and to remind young people of best practices to keep themselves and their families healthy.

Steps to center DC public housing residents in COVID-19 response efforts

The residents we spoke with were clear: although they have the strength to help each other deal with the pandemic’s challenges, it is essential for government entities, community-based organizations, and the private sector to invest in public housing, put equity at the forefront, and center the people most affected in developing their COVID-19 responses.

  • Affordable housing agencies and organizations should facilitate partnerships and connect resources to the direct service providers on the ground. Access to internet, computers, food and other basic items can be improved through stronger collaborations between city government, the private sector, and community leadership.
  • Local policymakers should center people with lived experience in making citywide recommendations for COVID-19 pandemic response. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently released recommendations made by the ReOpen DC committees, but too few of those committees included people with lived experience. Involving people with lived experience in the ReOpen DC efforts would ensure measures are feasible and can be readily adopted by residents. It would also build trust in DC government, help share critical information, and encourage communities to use available resources such as testing sites, food assistance, and mental health services.
  • Federal policymakers should invest resources to address the factors that put residents at greater risk of contracting and dying of COVID-19. The CARES Act has provided an important first influx of resources to public housing authorities and other affordable housing providers, but it will be insufficient as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue in the weeks and months to come. Addressing these underlying factors to better serve residents will require long-term federal investment in public housing.