DON’T expect me to mince words here. The DC government and, thus, the entire city, particularly low-income residents, have been drowning in high-cost mediocrity and breathtaking incompetence for decades. Some of the adverse consequences of that reality were recently laid bare in the assessment of the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) conducted by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Three of the five primary issues that HUD assessors identified in their 72-page report as contributing to the agency’s abject failure to administer its Housing Choice Voucher and its public housing programs are connected to inadequate or poor management and abysmal oversight by the agency’s board. Add local elected officials to the class of the irresponsible, including Mayor Muriel Bowser and the DC Council — especially at-large Council member Anita Bonds, whose Committee on Housing and Executive Administration is charged with overseeing DCHA.
On October 7, I highlighted on my Twitter feed — after reading a copy of the report that was sent to me prior to its wider availability — at least one indisputable example of this culture of expensive mediocrity and incompetence in the District: Brenda Donald, who was appointed in August 2021 as the agency’s executive director with Bowser’s backing soon after her retirement as director of DC’s Child and Family Services Agency.
HUD assessors noted that “Ms. Donald has no experience in property development, property management or managing federal housing programs.”
Still, the DC government is paying Donald an exorbitant annual salary of $275,000. “This salary exceeds HUD’s salary cap,” according to the report. “DCHA utilizes nonfederal funds to pay the executive director’s salary.”
Translation: Your money, dear taxpayers, is being used to compensate someone who doesn’t really know what she is doing. Donald is in her position because Bowser has demonstrated by her actions that she is primarily interested in surrounding herself with sycophants loyal to her agenda and political approach — not in serving the needs of District residents, despite the executive’s gesticulations and pronouncements at press conferences and other public events.
“I’m saddened by the report and embarrassed by conditions that the report shares about public housing,” Bowser said Wednesday during a press conference that was ostensibly called to announce the resignation of Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart. She said she has asked the city’s chief financial officer to conduct an evaluation of the DCHA property “to guide in our investments.”
Nevertheless. Bowser added that “I have complete faith in Brenda Donald to take this on,” noting her work with the LaShawn lawsuit that the city settled last year after 32 years. That
may have ended, but the city’s child welfare system remains broken.
The DC Housing Authority may be an independent agency, but the mayor appoints a majority of the members of its Board of Commissioners. John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff and deputy mayor for planning and economic development, is an ex officio member; the board is chaired by Dionne Bussey-Reeder, whom Bowser backed in a prior DC Council race.
“The temptation for a mayor to install people whose loyalty may exceed their competence is a hard one to resist. The record shows that neither this city administration nor its predecessor has been able to resist,” DC Superior Court Judge Steffen Graae wrote in a 1994 report related to the management of public housing that blasted the local government.
It’s déjà vu all over again.
Today, there are DC agency directors who owe their job to the quality of their mayoral fawning. We see it with the deputy mayor for education, the deputy mayor for health and human services, the DC Public Schools chancellor, the director of the Child and Family Services Agency, the director of the Department of Behavioral Health, the acting director of the Office of Unified Communications, the director of the Office of Risk Management, and the director of the Department of Small and Local Business Development (who once boasted that her only bona fides for the job was that she previously ran a cupcake business).
These kinds of personnel decisions that Bowser has made, and the council has endorsed, are an insult to poor and low-income citizens. Unquestionably, they serve as indications that the government does not take seriously residents’ needs or their potential to achieve and thrive.
In a 1995 treatise on Black leadership that appeared in the Washington City Paper, I wrote that “Washington, D.C., is a national poster child of urban dysfunction.” There were a few years of improvements, mostly under Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Rigor mortis has set in.
District elected officials often anoint themselves champions of the vulnerable. That loud talk comes with little action, much of it in fact designed to protect the favored.
Meanwhile, the real victims in this massive management failure throughout the District government, especially public housing, lack the resources to escape. Consequently, they are forced to live in developments where, as the assessors determined, “DCHA is not maintaining units in decent, safe and sanitary condition.”
HUD assessors documented 82 findings that track the lack of appropriate policies and regulations; violations of federal and local laws and procedures, some of which resulted in inappropriate expenditures; and general chaos or confusion. For example:
”DCHA has units in Undergoing Modernization status that are not under modernization as well as units actively being modernized by independent contractors that are not identified as Undergoing Modernization.”
“Property Management Operations staff members lack knowledge of unit turnaround procedures and could not provide the status of vacant units.”
“DCHA has not updated its waiting list in  years and could not provide the method it used to remove families from the waiting list.” A plan was presented to the assessors for cleaning up the various lists, but it contained information with a “2015 date for completion.”
“Crime is not being adequately prevented in public housing.” The DCHA sent “police escorts into the field” with the HUD assessors to “make sure nothing happened” to them.
“Procedures for preventive maintenance, unit turnover, and work order control submitted by the DCHA for review were all last revised in 1999 and not in use at the developments.”
“DCHA is not tracking funds owed from [Housing Choice Voucher] participants and/or landlords in accordance with HUD regulations.”
“As a result of DCHA’s failure to update is payment standard and utility allowance annually, as required by HUD, the [Housing Assistance Payments] and family rent to owner are not being calculated correctly.”
Several procurements used federal money but violated HUD policies and procedures. HUD’s review found that systemic problems exist in DCHA’s procurement system because of a lack of appropriate oversight by the executive leadership and the board.
Violating HUD rules, DCHA relied on credit cards to pay for hotels used to relocate tenants during work on its environmental initiative. HUD is demanding repayment of any federal funds used in those transactions from 2016 to the present.
Other contracting may have used “non-federal” funds but was also questionable, including $875,260 to Verbosity for software “without any competition” even though “competition for this type of work should have been possible.”
DCHA residents and the small band of advocates who support them have screamed about high vacancy rates until they are blue in the face. They have screamed about unsafe conditions. They have fought the agency and government about the absence of competent staff members and decried the wasteful and reckless spending of public money.
Some of these same problems — slow unit leasing turnaround, resulting in thousands of vacant units; delayed maintenance; and failed rent collection — were documented by Graae in 1994. They were by and large resolved during the tenure of a court-appointed receiver but have returned in the past decade because of the agency’s revolving-door leadership. Donald’s most recent predecessor stayed only three years; the DCHA board declined to renew Tyrone Garrett’s contract; for three years he received an annual salary of $245,000.
What a waste!
Residents believe things are not getting better, and that no one is listening to them. I know what it feels like to be ignored.
As a teen growing up in New Orleans, I had one foot in the middle-class world of my grandparents. I did all I could to keep the other foot from getting gangrene while living in one of the country’s most notorious public housing developments — the Desire Project. I worried every day whether I would be able to escape it. A four-acre stretch of red-brick, two-story, garden-style apartments, the Desire was boxed in by railroad tracks and a smelly, open sewer canal. Like many African Americans in our class, we were over-analyzed by sociologists and others who said our so-called pathologies were predicators of our future failures. The larger society, including some Blacks, either ignored us or placated us by throwing a few crumbs our way.
There has been a tsunami of statements from various council members voicing dismay and indignation about the HUD report: At-large member Elissa Silverman, who is running for a third term as an independent in the November general election, said it was a “wake-up call for urgent and immediate action.“
On Thursday she introduced emergency legislation developed with DC Attorney General Karl Racine; The council approved that bill on Tuesday Oct. 18. The Accountability Emergency Amendment Act of 2022 would require immediate training of all key DCHA personnel, including Donald and members of the agency’s board of directors. Further, it would also mandate regular reporting by the director and board to the council, mayor and AG. It also would require among other things immediate accounting of repayments due to the federal government; the amount of interest owed to tenants on their security deposits; and the number of vacant units by their status. (It a weak response designed to bring attention during a political season.)
Council Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie, who is also running as an independent in the general election, issued a statement saying that the “discovery of 82 deficiencies is deeply disturbing.” He also said that “Learning that 1 in 4 of DCHA’s 8,000 physical units have gone unoccupied is extremely disappointing, as there are many District residents who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.”
Unsurprisingly, Bonds — whose tenure as chair of the council’s housing committee I recently called lackluster — initially told reporters she was not surprised by the state of affairs at the DCHA. She expressed confidence in Donald and in the agency’s ability to turn things around. Public criticism of this initial stance may have contributed to the stronger statement she issued to media a few days later.
Donald defended her work at the agency in an op-ed article published by The Washington Post, asserting that DCHA is making necessary reforms after years of neglect. She argued the report was “not a wake-up call. We all knew the agency needed urgent transformation and a leader to take on the challenge.”
“We are confident that we will transform,” added Donald.
I am not the only one who is not so sure, especially given her deficits.
In fairness, it’s important to understand the national context. In recent years, the council has provided funds to DCHA, even as the federal government under former President Donald Trump and Ben Carson, the heart surgeon he appointed as HUD’s director, appeared to accelerate disinvestments from public housing across the country. (Maybe Bowser was mimicking the feds when she encouraged the appointment of Donald, who had no greater background in housing than Carson.)
According to HUD assessors, in 2020 the federal government provided $338 million to DCHA while the District provided $277 million. On paper the city’s contribution may look good. However, DCHA’s “financial position is trending downward” despite the infusion of local funds.
Moreover, the agency’s use of a “consolidated financial reporting” method has “obscured the poor performance of public housing. The program is not self-sustaining and relies on ever increasing infusions of local funds,” assessors wrote.
That last bit is ample reason for the council to do something. HUD has given DCHA until Nov. 30 to respond, with a plan, to the feds’ assessment report and recommendations.
Meanwhile, I would suggest the following actions:
Donald’s contract should be terminated immediately. Time is of the essence. The amount of training she needs to acquire the fundamental skills and experience would slow the pace of important reforms at the agency.
Instead of being stuck with leadership trained in deck chair arrangements, the council should demand a national search for a new DCHA director and require council confirmation for the position now and into the future.
Legislators should ask either the inspector general or the DC auditor to conduct an independent review of DCHA’s financial operations over the past five years.
Council members should establish through emergency legislation an independent oversight panel to manage the agency and develop a reform plan that incorporates HUD’s concerns as well as those raised by the tenants. It’s better for the legislature to take action than to have another court-appointed receiver.
In other words, radical action is needed now — not after the November election. Failing to do so would be indication that council members are satisfied with pontificating about improving the plight of the city’s most vulnerable residents while continuing to waste the public’s money.
A version of this article initially appeared in The DC Line.org