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Late last month, Mayor Muriel Bowser nominated political ally and non-profit executive Dionne Bussey-Reeder for appointment to the D.C. Housing Authority board of commissioners. Bowser endorsed Bussey-Reeder in her unsuccessful campaign to unseat At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman in 2018. If confirmed by the D.C. Council, Bussey-Reeder will replace former Commissioner NaKeisha Neal Jones for a term that ends in July 2023.
The nomination comes during heady times for the housing authority and its board. The 11-member board of commissioners, tasked with overseeing the agency and approving contracts, will welcome three new members in 2021. The current iteration of the board has brought heightened scrutiny to Director Tyrone Garrett‘s initiatives in recent months. As Garrett fights to win the trust of commissioners, he’s looking to move forward with his plan to address billions of dollars worth of repairs to the District’s dilapidated public housing.
Bussey-Reeder is the executive director of the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, a nonprofit located in Ward 8 that offers a wide range of supportive services for families and youth. She also owned Cheers @ the Big Chair, the now-shuttered Ward 8 restaurant, and worked as a Ward 8 neighborhood services coordinator under Mayor Anthony Williams, according to her resume.
Strickland is a former D.C. government and Council staffer and owns a consulting firm, and Ortiz Gaud owns a commercial flooring company. For all of their various and extensive professional backgrounds, none of the mayor’s three nominees have experience in affordable housing or real estate, according to their resumes.
Although experience in affordable housing and real estate isn’t required of mayoral appointees, it certainly helps.
“These are complex affordable housing transactions,” says Amanda Korber, an attorney with the D.C. Legal Aid Society’s housing unit. “And if I were on the board, I would want a deep understanding of how affordable housing financing and redevelopment works.”
Daniel Del Pielago, an organizer with Empower D.C. and a regular attendee of DCHA board meetings, echoes Korber’s sentiment.
“If I don’t know how development works, if I’m not questioning why certain things aren’t being presented to the board, then it’s fairly obvious that the mayor’s appointed commissioners are there to do the mayor’s bidding,” he says. “We know the mayor has an agenda, good or bad. So the board has to do its work to educate and bring its members up to snuff to do the work of the board.”
Questions about the qualifications of Bower’s picks for the housing authority board aren’t new. Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray called Bowser’s nomination of political ally Josh Lopez “reprehensible.” Lopez was ultimately confirmed, but resigned after he organized a rally where a speaker made anti-Semitic comments.
Strickland declined to comment, other than to say via email that he looks forward to welcoming new commissioners to the board. Ortiz Guad did not return a voicemail left at his office, and Bussey-Reeder did not respond to LL’s texts and voicemail.
Asked this week why Bussey-Reeder is qualified to sit on the DCHA board despite her lack of experience in affordable housing, Bowser said she is a “great leader” and pointed to her work with the Far Southeast Collaborative.
“A lot of constituents of that collaborative live in public housing,” Bowser says.
LL notes that, by law, three of the board’s commissioners must be residents of public housing and elected by other public housing residents. The mayor also nominates a housing choice voucher recipient to sit on the board.
LL will also note that Bussey-Reeder is Ward 1 resident. Though Bussey-Reeder has not publicly stated any future political aspirations, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau is up for re-election in 2022. Nadeau, who sits on the Council’s housing committee, says she is optimistic about Bussey-Reeder’s nomination.
Commissioner Dyana Forester, the board’s labor representative, who is stepping down from her position after she was elected president of the Metro Labor Council, shares Nadeau’s optimism.
“I think she does a good job of pushing back against the powers that be,” Forester says of Bussey-Reeder. “I’ve seen her speak out when things are clearly unjust.”
New commissioners face a steep learning curve, Forester says, adding that she has at times felt like she didn’t have the necessary expertise.
“I think the DCHA [board] has a challenging structure,” she says. “I don’t know what the right fix is. I don’t think I have the right skill set to make educated decisions and bring educated opinions to make real change for people.”
She believes board members should be better equipped, either through training or their own experience, to evaluate and vote on the complex housing development decisions before the board.
The mayor appoints five members to the DCHA board, including the board chairman and a housing voucher recipient. The mayor’s appointed deputy mayor for planning and economic development, John Falcicchio, also serves on the board as an ex officio member. Falcicchio is also Bowser’s chief of staff.
In 2019, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who chairs the housing committee, introduced legislation that would have tweaked qualifications for DCHA board nominees and added two additional, Council-appointed members. The bill never made it out of Bonds’ committee and will die at the end of the Council session in January. A Bonds staffer tells LL that she plans to reintroduce the bill in 2021.
Korber, the Legal Aid attorney, suggested in testimony last year that the bill should further narrow qualifications for commissioners to those with specific background in affordable housing.
Forester will appoint her own replacement on the board by virtue of her new role as president of the labor council. She’s tapping Ann Hoffman, a labor attorney and soon-to-be former member of the Public Employee Review Board.
Hoffman says she is familiar with the board to the extent that its actions reach the news. And she lives close by the Park Morton public housing complex and its beleaguered redevelopment. “So I’ve gotten a closer look at that than anything else,” she says. “I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. But just a slightly educated citizen. I have a lot to learn.”
A third new board member will replace former Commissioner Franselene St. Jean, who was removed in August, hours after she asked probing questions about a whistleblower lawsuit brought by DHCA’s former general counsel and about the progress of the controversial redevelopment of the housing authority’s headquarters.
Bowser hasn’t yet picked a replacement for St. Jean. Falcicchio tells LL that the administration is currently considering potential nominees.
Another lesson new commissioners must learn, Forester says, is a healthy skepticism. DCHA Director Garrett gives commissioners a monthly report, “and consistently the residents testifying about their experience didn’t match what we were hearing in directors’ reports,” Forester says.
She recalls former Barry Farm residents telling the board about getting saddled with a bill for storage units that the housing authority was supposed to pay. Some Barry Farm residents were relocated to smaller units and needed extra space to store their stuff.
DCHA spokesperson Jose Sousa says via email that DCHA assisted Barry Farm residents with storage issues when housing authority learned about them more than a year ago. “We continue to work with residents and the development team to ensure that these needs are being met,” Sousa writes in an email. “DCHA looks forward to working collaboratively with the new members of the Board of Commissioners. We share the commitment that our BOC holds dear to serve and empower our residents. We’re committed to transparency and the transformation of our agency in 2021 and beyond.”
“That’s the problem with the director,” Forester says. “He keeps saying ‘Trust me. I got this. We have this experience.’ He’s gotta humble himself more.”