It’s 4:00 p.m. on another windy March weekday, and the throng of residents-cum-activists inside the District of Columbia Housing Authority’s monthly meeting is getting restless. They’ve been there for almost three hours, and they’d like more time to talk. Visibly tired and agitated, the Authority’s 11-member board of commissioners sit in a semicircle under a host of fluorescent yellow lights and try to calm attendees down.
The board has been listening as witnesses deliver scathing, outraged, and often heartbreaking testimony about the living conditions of properties operated by the Housing Authority, including Ward 8’s notorious Barry Farm.
One of those people, a 71-year-old woman, lambasts commissioner Frank Lancaster for reneging on a promise to come visit her property and refuses to step down from the microphone until he commits to a new date. He offers a mea culpa: He was at a staff retreat that day, he says. “You just didn’t show up,” she scolds him. “Pick a time. Pick a time.”
Another Barry Farm resident talks about the condition of her apartment and alleges that the management is condescending and largely absent. “Not even the dog wants to live there,” she says, adding that her depression has grown more profound because of it. The crowd mumbles sympathetically when she speaks, and the commission’s chairman, Neil Albert, repeatedly asks members of the audience to be quiet.
During another testimony, commissioner Aquarius Vann-Ghasri walks over to deliver tissues and water to a sobbing tenant.
The scene isn’t a new one for the Authority, which is responsible for administering housing vouchers to tens of thousands of low-income D.C. residents. In 1994, it was placed under court-ordered receivership—that is, it was temporarily operated by a third party—and has since been restructured to depoliticize the board of commissioners and enforce its status as an independent city agency.
But the Housing Authority’s March legislative agenda has advocates concerned that not much has changed at the agency. One resolution, for example, is a duplicate of a measure introduced and voted down in December that would switch the funding of subsidized affordable housing units to project-based vouchers. Unlike other tenant-based vouchers, PBVs are granted to housing units rather than people. Switching to PBVs would see the Housing Authority pay thousands of dollars (per unit) to redevelop Barry Farm in Ward 8, Park Morton in Ward 1, and Kenilworth Courts in Ward 7, the first two of which are included in the stalled New Communities Initiative.
Policy analysts and advocates for low-income tenants and the homeless, including those at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, Bread for the City, and Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless have expressed concern that, if the Housing Authority merely shifts funding mechanisms rather than increasing resources for affordable housing, it’ll prevent the Authority from creating new affordable units—and, in fact, could shrink the number of existing affordable units.
Another measure the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners planned to take up: releasing WC Smith, a property management and development company, from a 2008 contract to build 30 public housing units along the Southeast waterfront. It is no longer interested in doing so “because of economic and other considerations.” Smith would pay the city $8.2 million for the property. (The board ended up not voting on that measure this month.)
Those resolutions are indicative of the agency’s tendency to make “decision after decision after decision that tilt toward high income residents,” and “very skewed” investments, Patricia Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic of the Homeless, told this reporter on the phone shortly before the Housing Authority’s vote.
The PBV measure went on to pass that day, and some some members of the public, along with a commissioner, are calling foul play.
When the project-based voucher resolution was nixed by the Housing Authority’s board in December, affordable housing advocates were relieved; it’s not popular among those who provide housing and legal services to low-income residents. So a handful of public witnesses say they found it suspicious when, not even a month after Mayor Muriel Bowser was able to appoint two new commissioners (Joshua Lopez and Franselene St. Jean) to the board, the body decided to take the measure up again.
Compounding that fury is the presence, on the board, of Brian Kenner, who is also the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development. The perceived conflict of interest has undermined onlookers’ trust in the autonomy of the Housing Authority, whose financial and political interests are often at odds with the city’s. (In his role at DMPED, Kenner works in concert with the mayor to identify and develop affordable housing projects, and then can review and approve those recommendations in his role as a DCHA commissioner. “On any other board, [Kenner] would have to recuse himself,” says Aja Taylor, policy director for Bread for the City.)
That tension was a lumbering presence at the board meeting.
Housing Authority Commissioner Bill Slover, who has repeatedly asked for the commission to review its conflict of interest policy because it allows DMPED leaders to sit on the board, again asked commissioners to consider why Kenner should be allowed to vote on the day’s measures. Albert quickly dismissed the concern—which newly agitated the crowd—and Kenner broke his silence to note that while “the issue of conflict of interest has been raised before,” it’s not unusual for DMPED officials to sit on the board. (That, it seems, is exactly the problem.)
As the subtle infighting subsided and Albert prepared the board for a vote on its PBV initiative, members of the crowd jumped out of their seats, upset that he planned to cut public testimony short. “You’ll have time after the vote for general comments,” Albert told the two women still standing. “So we can’t talk until after you’ve already voted?” one asked. “Explain what process changed here.”
When the crowd finally settled, Albert again moved for a vote. There was a chorus of “yes”-es, but Slover pointedly repeated that he would vote no “because not one word has changed since we voted this down in December.”