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Under Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Department of Housing and Community Development has made record investments in affordable housing. Already this year, DHCD has allocated half of the money in the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund—or roughly $50 million—toward affordable projects.
But during a marathon oversight hearing held by the D.C. Council’s housing committee Friday, the agency would not address its refusal to date to transfer four vacant, blighted homes in Anacostia to the nonprofit L’Enfant Trust, as it is required to do by an emergency law the Council passed in 2016. Per the legislation, the L’Enfant Trust would renovate the historic homes into “workforce housing” at no cost to taxpayers. The permanent version of the bill is to become law this month after congressional review. At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who ran the hearing, cointroduced both versions of the bill.
Testifying to the housing committee, which Bonds chairs, DHCD director Polly Donaldson repeatedly declined to speak about the agency’s efforts to comply with the legislation. When At-Large Councilmember Robert White pressed Donaldson, the director said she could not comment on the statute. Below is an abridged transcript of their exchange:
White: I’m wondering what in the law gives you the sense that there was flexibility to do something different than what the council had passed in this legislation?
Donaldson: I can’t comment on the legislation. Thank you.
White: The legislation involves transferring the properties to the L’Enfant Trust. Did the agency believe that that was a recommendation? Or optional?
Donaldson: I don’t have a comment on the legislation. Thank you.
White: Why don’t you have a comment?
Donaldson: I don’t have a comment on the legislation. We were implementing the disposition of the property according to the charter that we have to dispose of District-owned property that is owned by DHCD.
White: Does the charter supersede District law?
Donaldson: I don’t have a comment on that. Thank you.
The Council and the Bowser administration have been engaged in a mind-boggling tango dance around the set of vacant Anacostia houses since last year.
The Council gave initial approval to the permanent bill enabling the L’Enfant Trust to redevelop the houses with a 12-1 vote on Nov. 1. Residents in the neighborhood had called on councilmembers to force DHCD’s hand, worrying that the houses could collapse and that they would harm surrounding property values.
Later that month, DHCD hedged on the expected legislation by releasing a solicitation for the row houses. The agency holds the homes within its Property Acquisition and Disposition Division, which is responsible for over 150 sites—almost half in Ward 8.
The Council then went forward with its emergency legislation, ordering Bowser’s administration to transfer the four ramshackle, D.C.-owned homes to the L’Enfant Trust “no later than Jan. 31, 2017.”
DHCD did not make the transfer, but instead continued its competitive solicitation process, and is now reviewing two development applications from nonprofits Mi Casa and the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights. The solicitation is for the four homes plus two empty lots in Anacostia. The L’Enfant Trust, which has previously renovated historic houses in Anacostia, did not apply via this process. DHCD says it expects to award bids in early April.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has said he is weighing next steps, recently telling City Paper that DHCD “should be ashamed of how it’s handled this situation.” The houses have been in D.C.’s care since before Bowser became mayor.
Administration sources claim the council’s emergency action is largely unprecedented. They argue that lawmakers have wrongly sidestepped DHCD’s competitive solicitation process, which they cast as a function of good governance. And though councilmembers regularly approve land-disposition agreements at the administration’s request, DHCD says the legislation could create bad precedent.
It’s to be seen what will happen with the homes, which have continued to deteriorate over the years.
After receiving no answers from Donaldson, White moved on to other city programs, including the District Opportunity to Purchase Act, a years-old law that remains unfunded. Donaldson said draft DOPA rules would be released in 2017.
Also during Friday’s hearing, DHCD admitted that it has not given out any loans in accordance with a pilot program it launched last June, which was designed to maintain affordable housing in Ward 8. The initiative was supposed to make low-interest-rate loans available to owners of properties having fewer than 50 units, who are in good standing with the city. The loans would finance needed repairs.
But Donaldson explained that because the money is sourced in the Housing Production Trust Fund, there are 40-year affordability covenants required of participating properties. This has discouraged landlords of small buildings from seeking loans available through the pilot. “There have been some preliminary conversations with some buildings that have not come to fruition,” Donaldson testified, calling the situation “challenging.” She said DHCD was exploring other sources of program funding.
“Everyone was so excited about this fund in that…a lot of our smaller buildings are owned by individual owners, and they need access to capital to improve their [properties],” responded At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. “I have to say I’m a little disappointed to hear this answer.”
Additionally, DHCD said it’s working on implementing the recommendations of Bowser’s “Housing Preservation Strike Force,” which came out last November and include a public-private investment fund.