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On Friday, April 12, dozens of people showed up at Ivy City Smokehouse to mourn the departure of Ron McCoy from the DC Housing Authority, the public housing agency where he worked for almost two decades.
His DCHA colleagues attended to wish him well, but so did some of the agency’s clients—people who McCoy, a native Washingtonian, helped find a place to live. “They refused to say goodbye,” one DCHA employee, who requested anonymity, tells City Paper. This employee worked alongside McCoy for several years and called him “one of the best people I’ve ever worked for.”
As the director of DCHA’s Housing Choice Voucher Program for more than a decade, McCoy oversaw and managed the distribution of vouchers to an estimated 19,000 families, up from about 5,000 when he started. He created and administered dozens of initiatives—Housing Affordable Living Options, Homeownership Coordination Committee, and the Housing Providers Association among them—and secured partnerships to run some of the housing programs for sister agencies like the Child and Family Services Agency and the departments of Health, Human Services, and Behavioral Health.
On March 29, McCoy resigned from the Authority, effective immediately. Multiple agency sources confirm to City Paper that Tyrone Garrett, who has been executive director of DCHA since October 2017, informed staff of McCoy’s departure in an early-morning meeting the following Monday. There were “grown men and women crying,” the employee says. (McCoy declined to comment on the record for this article.)
Sources describe McCoy’s departure as confusing and abrupt—he had not, they say, indicated that he had a desire to leave the agency. DCHA employees were apparently so blindsided by Garrett’s announcement that he told them to “breathe,” and that “change happens. It was my decision.”
The employee says that McCoy “inspired people to give more than the average,” to the point where people were “staying late, coming in on weekends, going above and beyond because he set that standard and you didn’t mind doing it.”
Patricia Fugere, executive director of D.C.’s Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, tells City Paper in an emailed statement that it is “certainly unsettling to see a well-respected leader of such an important housing program leave the agency so abruptly, especially with so little information known about his departure. Regardless of the circumstances, with tens of thousands of households on the waiting list for a voucher and with a significant portion of its public housing portfolio in severely substandard conditions, we are at a critical juncture with regard to the future of subsidized housing in the nation’s capital.”
McCoy “is a public servant in the truest sense,” says Beth Harrison, director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia’s eviction defense unit. She refers to those at Legal Aid who have known and worked with McCoy for years as “very distressed.”
“I think Ron McCoy leaving is an incredible loss for the agency and for low-income tenants in the District,” Harrison says. “[He] was one of the most effective employees I’d ever worked with from DCHA. He had a strong commitment to providing affordable housing for low income tenants and improving operations. When we had problems with new procedures or policies, or saw new issues emerging, we’d take them to Ron. He’d work with us to try to address them. I hope that will continue with the new leadership. It’s just an incredible loss.”
McCoy’s departure comes as the Authority faces scrutiny over both Garrett’s behavior and his strategy to rehabilitate thousands of public housing units that have fallen into disrepair over the decades.
Six current and former employees of the Long Branch, New Jersey, public housing authority filed a lawsuit against the agency on Feb. 22, alleging that its former chief of staff sexually harassed his employees for years, and attempted to rape one of them. Garrett helmed LBHA at the time of the alleged harassment and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit; plaintiffs argue that he enabled his chief of staff’s behavior. (Garrett denies the allegations. Brian Kenner, who is the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and a member of DCHA’s board of commissioners, says through a spokesperson that the board has “tasked [DCHA’s] general counsel with reviewing the initial suit in New Jersey and is closely monitoring those legal proceedings.”)
City Paper’s DCHA sources say that revelations about the lawsuit, coupled with McCoy’s sudden departure, have created tension inside the Authority’s office.
Garrett has campaigned for months to garner support for DCHA’s as-of-yet unreleased strategy to redevelop some of the worst public housing complexes in the District.
“Generally, we have concerns about the direction of the agency,” Harrison says. She cites the agency’s apparent push to privatize some of the worst-off buildings in its portfolio as one of Legal Aid’s biggest concerns, and says that “in more recent months, we as advocates for tenants have not been as involved as traditionally we were in giving feedback about new regulations, new policies. It seems like our ability to give feedback has declined somewhat.”
Harrison adds that “some of the most productive meetings we’ve had” during Garrett’s time at the agency were “when we engaged with Ron McCoy. To lose him really feels like a potential loss RE our engagement with the agency.”
Garrett has indicated for months that he believes it might be imprudent to ask the D.C. government itself to fully fund the scope of repairs required to make over 2,400 units of public housing fully habitable. While DCHA leaders, including Garrett, have pegged the cost of repairs at $1.3 billion over a decade, Garrett revised the cost this month to over $2.2 billion. At a budget oversight hearing for the agency in April, Garrett testified that his most “aggressive” budget allocation request would be an additional $50 million annually for 17 years.
At a January meeting of DCHA’s board of commissioners, a majority of the members, at Garrett’s behest, voted to adopt “a framework for the stabilization and repositioning [of] DCHA’s portfolio of properties”—a plan that some attorneys and nonprofit workers say amounts to little more than privatizing large swaths of DCHA’s portfolio.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Authority says: “DCHA is reviewing all options and has decided that until the residents of the affected communities and other stakeholders have an opportunity to provide input, no decisions will be made about submitting demolition applications to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.” The agency has already submitted three demolition/disposition applications for different complexes in DCHA’s portfolio.
And should those, or other, buildings undergo redevelopment in the coming year, hundreds of tenants will have to find housing on the private market using vouchers—via the department McCoy was in charge of overseeing.
“It’s a terrible time to lose that institutional leadership,” Harrison says, “when the voucher program will face a number of challenges in the coming months.”