Polly Donaldson and then-Mayor Vince Gray encourage a formerly homeless woman to share her story last April.
Polly Donaldson and then-Mayor Vince Gray encourage a formerly homeless woman to share her story last April.

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Of all the crises facing the incoming administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser this year, the direst was homelessness. The spike in family homelessness that took the city by surprise in the winter of 2013-2014 grew even worse this past winter, spurred largely by the vanishing supply of affordable housing in the District. Bowser has won early praise from housing and homeless advocates for her appointment of seasoned deputies to lead the relevant city agencies. Laura Zeilinger, now in charge of the Department of Human Services, was formerly executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. And Polly Donaldson, tapped to head the Department of Housing and Community Development, most recently led the nonprofit Transitional Housing Corporation, which provides housing and services to hundreds of homeless families each year.

DHCD isn’t directly responsible for serving homeless residents. But with its affordable-housing duties and Donaldson’s homeless-services background, the agency is clearly orienting itself toward tackling the homeless crisis. Two months after she was confirmed as DHCD director by the D.C. Council, I sat down with Donaldson to discuss her strategies for improving D.C.’s housing landscape. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

You’ve made a big deal of the $100 million that the mayor allocated in her budget proposal for the Housing Production Trust Fund [which funds the creation and preservation of affordable housing]. What do expect that $100 million to accomplish?

I think that’s going to enable us to do both production—-meeting the production goals that are outlined in the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force work, which we’re probably going to actually up, because I think the investments in the last few years have helped us; we’ve got 3,400 units in the pipeline right now—-and preservation. We need to have a specific target on preservation and the ability to move swiftly and nimbly to meet upcoming preservation issues. Not just doing it when crisis hits, but in a proactive way two or three years out.

Most of the money from the Trust Fund goes to creating and preserving housing for people making under half of area median income. But because those apartments are more expensive to subsidize, most of the units being created through the Trust Fund are actually for people who aren’t very poor, those making more than half of AMI.

Right, only a portion of them are at the 30 percent [AMI level]. But what I’m saying is that without the Trust Fund, they wouldn’t be produced at all. And so the more we put in, the more we’ll be able to reach the extremely low-income and very low-income. And that will dovetail with other parts of our public policy. Our resource deceisions have to follow public policy, and they will under this administration.

Should the city be allocating a higher percentage of its funds to housing for very low-income residents?

I actually think the levels are right. I think we need to adhere to the statutory requirements, which has not always been the case in the past few years. In other words, we need to make sure that the deals we’re approving and that are moving forward and that we’re encouraging developers to bring to us have the ranges of income levels being addressed. If we only approve units at 80 percent [of AMI], that’s not going to meet those goals.

That said, it’s interesting also to see that under 30, we are capable of putting together the resources and the operating subsidy. Over 80 [percent of AMI, or about $86,000 for a family of four], that’s doing fine too. Between 31 and 50, that’s a little harder, and what we really want to start promoting even more, and there are some entities that do this already, is a true mixed-income model. So we will be more prescriptive, as we say “we have funds available for…,” we’re going to say we want prioritization so we can hit the income levels we want to reach.

The Interagency Council on Homelessness plan released in March to slash homelessness over the next five years lays out ambitious short-term goals for eliminating veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness. For family homelessness, it’s a longer-term plan. DHCD isn’t the agency primarily responsible for addressing homelessness, but your background is in this area. What’s your role in accomplishing those goals?

I was appointed to the ICH under mayors Fenty and Gray, and continue to serve now, but in my ex officio role as head of this agency. So I’m still around the same table with the same people and participated very much in the strategic planning process. The mayor believes it really has to be all the agencies that are touching housing involved in ending homelessness. [We need to create] permanent housing solutions: both permanent supportive housing, for a defined subgroup that needs wraparound services and a stable housing environment, and targeted affordable housing, affordable units for folks flowing through the system who don’t need the same extent of services. That almost falls in the prevention category, preventing return to the homeless system. It’s recognizing that there are other challenges beyond just finding a stable home that need to be addressed. And we need to contribute to that. We need to say to the developers, “We want to encourage you to designate some of the units in development at the below-30 [AMI level].”

The only way out of a shelter-based system that says shelter is where you’re going to be is to create other housing opportunities. And we’ve got to be part of the solution.

I really believe that the Council should approve the mayor’s request, both on the Housing Production Trust Fund and on the homeless funding that is being done to help with the systems integration and transition.

Do you think you can make these changes fast enough to prevent another winter like the last two?

I think the right course is to implement systems change. There will be a transition period. No, you cannot shut down D.C. General immediately. But you have to be able to execute a plan so it’s not the only option. And I think that will be in place this winter, at least in terms of some alternate sites.

It’s also the case on the singles side, with the CCNV shelter [near Judiciary Square]. You can’t just shut the doors and turn people away. You’ve got to have a plan executed. And I think the mayor’s right that we need to diversify throughout our city—-that concentrating [shelters] in one area or one neighborhood doesn’t make sense.

The Department of Human Services has shown me its latest figures on the number of people exiting shelter into housing—-

Which have increased.

and I’m still trying to get clarification of the numbers—-

Those are real. I’ve seen the numbers. Those are real numbers of exits. And I can tell you why. Because I was on the other side, when I was at THC. I saw that our staff would do the assessments and folks would be ready to go but they did not have that housing liaison assistance to get out of shelter and into a unit. And there were logjams, there were issues that needed to be unjammed. I know Laura Zeilinger. She’s addressing them. And so I believe those numbers are real, and that keeping that pace of exits is gonna be challenging, but it is doable.

How do we get ready for the next hypothermia season? Well, one of the solutions that needs to be addressed is to not have it be weather-based, the whole year-round access to shelter [which Zeilinger hopes to implement this year, changing the current policy that grants shelter access during hypothermia conditions], so there’s not this huge influx into shelters when the weather turns cold.

The greatest frustration with DHCD has come in its own backyard. Anacostia residents have accused the agency of neglecting the vacant and blighted property it owns in the neighborhood. Now, I know there’s been movement here on this corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and Good Hope Road—-

And you know why? ‘Cause when the mayor came here my second week in office, she looked out the window, she pointed here [opens blinds, points at vacant properties across the street], and said, “Who owns these?” And I said, “We do.” And then she pointed across Martin Luther King and said, “Who owns those?” And I said, “We do.” And she said, “Put those on your list.”

We are also very actively looking at the vacant and blighted property in this area and across the city. If [the owner is] not paying the taxes, we can secure the property. But we have to follow the legal process for that, because we do have property rights in our city, right? And even expedited, it does take a year. We have a division that does acquisition, and we then file in court and follow through the steps—-you have to find the current owner, you have to serve the current owner—-and we have active disposition solicitations on the street now.

Since 2011, the city hasn’t conducted any junk sales—-

What is that exactly?

As I understand it, if the tax owed on a property is more than the building is worth—-

Then we buy it. And we don’t have to pay the tax. And then we put it out to bid without the tax lien, but with a guarantee of affordability. We put a covenant on it. So that takes a little bit longer.

We’ve actually upped the volume in the past year of the properties we’re putting out, and we’re going to continue to do that. [According to DHCD, the number of dispositions the agency has put out to sell the vacant properties it controls has risen from 24 in fiscal year 2013 to 48 last year and 36 this fiscal year, as of May 11.]

Has DHCD always placed these affordability covenants on the properties it sells?

That’s our mission, right? We do several types of property dispositions. We also do turnkey, where we do the redevelopment and then sell it, again with an affordability covenant. What that does is limit whoever buys it from being able to resell it immediately for triple the price.

Why not sell it for market rate?

We could. That’s not our mission.

Unless it funds your mission.

It shouldn’t become part of the speculative market.

The District Opportunity to Purchase Act allows the city to buy properties when they go up for sale in order to maintain their affordability. But DHCD has never even written the regulations surrounding DOPA, and so DOPA has never been used. I hear that may finally be changing.

It is. There are draft regulations that I’m in the process of reviewing. The mayor is about to appoint a preservation strike force to look at the housing preservation strategy and develop an action plan and a resource plan for dealing with future Museum Squares, and to be in a more proactive position rather than being reactive. DOPA will play a role in that, because it provides the means that if the tenants aren’t going to, the District can enter in—-or actually, the District can be prepared to make an offer regardless of where the tenants are, but they still have first right. We are going to be promulgating those regulations. It’s a tool we should be using.

The question of how to resource it. In other words, what’s going to be the fund? And it’s going to be a revolving fund, because the District wouldn’t retain ownership [of a property it buys under DOPA]. It’d be a disposition process.

It’s a tool we should be using. The mayor wants to use it. And resourcing it is where we’re looking at how best to do that.

Will it require new funding from the Council?

Practically, there’s going to need to be some source if there’s an acquisition, at least a temporary source. So figuring out what the source of that is—-is it a portion of the Trust Fund? Is it a separate fund? The commitment of the mayor to the $100 million has brought in other private groups, pension funds, others who are mission oriented. And it’s in part because of the certainty of the mayor’s commitment that there have been conversations based on that.

Photo by Aaron Wiener