City Paper is not for tourists
Nearly three hours into the DC Housing Authority Board of Commissioners’ September meeting, Commissioner LeJuan Strickland had a question for Director Tyrone Garrett.
“If we don’t pass this today, what’s gonna happen?” Strickland asked of the housing authority’s 2021 operating budget.
“We won’t have a budget to work with for the fiscal year,” Garrett responded.
Strickland’s question followed hours of back-and-forth discussion about the housing authority’s proposed $561 million operating budget for fiscal year 2021 (a $30 million increase over the previous fiscal year) as well as proposals to use the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a financial restructuring tool that allows private companies to invest in the maintenance and management of public housing.
Commissioners ultimately decided to delay the budget vote until a special meeting this week. They also voted down two proposals, championed by Garrett, that would have allowed him to move forward with redeveloping two public housing properties through RAD. The resolutions failed in part, commissioners said, because Garrett did not provide the board with promised information about the projects’ overall impact on the housing authority’s portfolio.
“We agreed as a board to get this information prior to having to make these decisions,” Commissioner Bill Slover said during last week’s meeting. “This happens on this board all the time. We get promises made and the time comes and you’re like ‘Oh we’ll get it next time.'”
Taken together, the delayed budget vote and the rejection of Garrett’s RAD resolutions–key to his long-term plan to revitalize D.C.’s aging and decrepit public housing—are only the latest indicators of at least some commissioners’ waining trust in the executive director. And they’re not the only ones.
In 2019, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced a bill that would have stripped the housing authority of its independent status and brought it under the purview of the Office of the Mayor. Seven other councilmembers supported the bill. Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s proposed FY 2021 budget included a provision that required Garrett to get her approval before he spent capital funds. (The Council weakened that provision in the final budget to instead require Garrett to submit a spending plan to the mayor and the Council.)
And in June, Attorney General Karl Racine took the unusual step of suing the housing authority over the agency’s neglect of at least 10 public housing properties. The suit claimed that DCHA failed to address issues with drugs and guns, endangering 5,000 residents. Racine announced a settlement this week that will cost DCHA millions. The deal requires DCHA to improve security including installing security cameras, hiring more security guards, and boarding up vacant units. The settlement also requires DCHA to pay $500,000 over five years for violence interruption efforts and report to Racine’s office on a monthly basis.
DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett was unavailable for an interview before LL’s deadline. But on the notion that he is losing the confidence of local leaders, DCHA spokesperson Jose Sousa points out that the D.C. Council allocated $50 million to the agency in its FY 2021 budget.
“I think the Council’s commitment of dollars would not have happened if they didn’t believe we have the capacity to execute getting this money spent in a way that preserves our affordable housing stock,” Sousa says.
The housing authority has yet to publicly explain how it intends to spend the $50 million. Sousa says those details are coming soon.
DCHA resolutions 20-15 and 20-16 were only the beginning stages of what will likely be a two-year process. The board’s approval would have given Garrett permission to submit RAD applications to HUD for the Kelly Miller Townhomes and LeDroit Senior Apartments, and the Judiciary House Apartments, respectively. It takes months for HUD to evaluate the applications, and Garrett estimated the entire process wouldn’t be complete until early 2022.
At the very least, the resolutions’ failures will delay and already time-consuming process.
DHCA’s chief of planning, Alex Morris, said during last week’s board meeting that repairs to Judiciary House will cost more than twice what DCHA originally estimated. DCHA has spent about $19.8 million so far, Morris told the board, and anticipated the total cost at about $35 million. The RAD conversion is supposed to help make up the $15 million gap.
Garrett said during the meeting that DCHA has previously “lost opportunities because we didn’t act,” but did not elaborate on specific projects that fell apart. Sousa tells LL that the authority plans to resubmit the resolutions “at a future board meeting.”
The properties are identified in DCHA’s Transformation Plan as needing immediate structural repairs and upgrades, including rodent and insect extermination and lead paint abatement.
During the discussion over the RAD proposals, Slover, who is often at odds with Garrett, repeatedly referenced a previous DCHA resolution that spells out the information Garrett agreed to provide the board of commissioners before they vote on privatizing existing public housing. Resolution 19-01 requires, among other things, a financing plan and a summary of the deal, none of which Garrett provided before asking for the board of commissioners’ approval of the resolutions, Slover indicated.
“The reason I kept pushing to try to get this information from the agency is because we have to take all of our assets into consideration as we move forward,” Slover said. “So the reason I pushed so hard, and others on the board have pushed so hard to understand the condition of all of our properties is to make sure we’re doing the best we can with our money. I’m not saying you’re not, I’m saying I don’t have the information to make those decisions.”
Garrett countered by saying he would provide the board with information “in real time” as the deals develop.
“Every deal that we have is not going to have the same scenario, and every deal that we encounter is going to have different nuances that we have to present to you in a financing plan,” Garrett said.
Slover pressed him to show an analysis indicating that the RAD program was the best fit for the two properties in question, and Garrett pointed to a tool developed for DCHA by McKinsey & Company. The tool, for which the board of commissioners approved nearly $1 million to purchase in 2018, provided some basis, Garrett said, and helped identify 13 other properties to target. He assured the board that “there’s not going to be anything done behind closed doors,” but that wasn’t enough to sway enough commissioners.
Slover pointed out that commissioners haven’t received an update on the Judiciary House plans, for example, since 2019, when the estimated cost for improvements was about $13 million.
“You’re asking us to approve something that’s going to fundamentally change the make-up of these properties without the information you said you would give us,” Slover said. “It’s a very simple thing.”
Both resolutions failed by 4-5-1 votes. With the exception of Commissioner John Falcicchio, who serves on the board by virtue of his job as Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, all of the “yes” votes came from mayoral appointees to the board, including commissioners Strickland and Jose Ortiz Gaud, along with Chairman Neil Albert. Commissioners Dyana Forrester, Antonio Taliaferro, Kenneth Council, Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, and Slover voted “no.” Commissioner NaKeisha Neal Jones, another mayoral appointee, abstained from both votes. She declined to comment on her abstentions and writes in an email that “it’s the board’s policy that individual members not speak directly to the media.” She directed LL to follow up with Sousa or Albert, who has not returned LL’s phone calls.
Before the DCHA board opted to postpone the 2021 budget vote, much of the discussion focused on spending for millions of dollars in reserve funds as well as the $50 million that the D.C. government allocated to DCHA in FY 2021. Confusion over the spending aligned Slover with Albert and Falcicchio, two sides of the DCHA board that typically do not see eye to eye. The delay marks the second time in two years the board took two meetings to approve the budget.
Falcicchio, who in addition to his job as deputy mayor also serves as Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s chief of staff, raised questions about Garrett’s spending plan for the $50 million from the D.C. government, as those funds were not accounted for in the proposed budget. Garrett said he has a plan for how to spend the money and anticipated sharing them during a future meeting.
“What I’m more concerned about is that we’re passing a budget, but we’re not accounting for $50 million that is supposed to be spent in that fiscal year,” Falcicchio said.
Slover, Falcicchio, and Albert also expressed confusion around spending for $14 million in the agency’s reserve funds, which DCHA requested last fiscal year to temporarily address lead issues. The proposed 2021 budget shows that DCHA only spent about $2 million of those funds. The remaining $12 million is unaccounted for in the proposed budget given to the board.
Garrett said the housing authority’s initial analysis that called for temporary lead remediation had been revised, and permanent abatement might be more appropriate.
“Now that HUD has put us into the lead abatement plan, some of that money may have to be spent for full abatement,” Garrett said. “Which means we don’t have to go back on an annual basis to make any repairs.” He said he expects the remaining $12 million will be spent over the next three years. Meanwhile, DCHA requested another $7 million in reserve funds for FY 2021.
“I’m confused about the reserves and the numbers,” Slover said. “So two things: Yes we want to make sure the work gets done, but I’m lost, confused on the numbers.”
Albert echoed Slover’s comments, saying, “I still don’t know how I got from 14 to 2. The only way I know to get from 14 to 2 is to reduce the scope of work, right? Or delay or push it out, and so I haven’t gotten clarity on that.” Commissioner Council, for his part, called the proposed budget “sloppy” and “too ambiguous.”
Earlier this year, Garrett’s contract was renewed for only one year through September 2021—another indicator of the board’s skepticism of the director, who can be removed regardless of the length of his contract. Indeed, his three-year tenure has not been without controversy outside of spending and development deals.
In 2019, Garrett was named as a defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit stemming from his previous job leading the Long Branch Housing Authority in Essex County, New Jersey. The lawsuit brought by six current and former LBHA employees accused the agency’s then-chief of staff of sexual propositioning and harassment and alleged that Garrett “was fully aware” of the conduct and “purposefully looked the other way.”
And earlier this year, Garrett’s now-former general counsel sued him for breech of contract. The whistleblower lawsuit accuses Garrett of having DCHA former general counsel Chelsea Andrews fired after she raised concerns with the procurement and authenticity of masks purchased to protect employees during the pandemic.
DCHA will meet this Thursday at 9:30 to consider DCHA’s 2021 budget for a second time.