Brenda Donald‘s tenure at the D.C. Housing Authority was supposed to be brief. The DCHA board voted in late May to install Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s former child and family services director as its interim leader while a subcommittee conducted a national search. Donald was just retiring when she agreed to head DCHA following former director Tyrone Garrett‘s ouster.
But before the search committee could even finish the job description, board Chairman Neil Albert, another Bowser ally, announced that Donald wanted to stay on for two years. The board will gather in a last-minute emergency meeting tomorrow morning to consider a resolution authorizing a two-year contract for Donald.
The sudden reversal raises several questions for Loose Lips about the timing, mayoral influence over the independent agency, and Donald’s qualifications for the permanent job.
The draft job description, which was shared with LL, calls for:
• “Comprehensive knowledge of programs, regulations and directives of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as all other applicable Federal and District laws and regulations.”
• “Comprehensive knowledge of and experience with urban community planning, real estate development and rehabilitation in an urban setting and real estate management.”
• And “demonstrated knowledge of urban economics, design, and planning, property acquisition and property redevelopment systems, techniques, and practices.”
The description also calls for “highly advanced leadership and communication skills,” “experience with political and community advocacy,” and 10 years of senior management experience in human services; community, economic, and affordable housing development; or real estate development; or a combination of the three.
Donald writes in an email to LL that it would be premature for her to respond before the board’s vote tomorrow. Albert didn’t reply to LL’s email seeking comment.
Judging from her resume, Donald has the human services and managerial experience in spades. She has served in three D.C. mayoral administrations—as Bowser’s deputy mayor for health and human services and most recently as the director of the Child and Family Services Agency. Mayor Tony Williams appointed Donald deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elders, and she worked for former Mayor and current Ward 7 councilmember Vince Gray as CFSA’s director.
But her resume is void of any experience in real estate, development, or affordable housing.
Daniel Del Pielago, an organizer with Empower DC who focuses on public housing, says Donald has been responsive to emails and generally willing to meet with residents and advocates during her short interim tenure.
But he says her experience doesn’t appear to measure up.
“I don’t think she has the background in housing that’s needed, or in knowing HUD,” Del Pielago says. “She knows the city obviously, but her political allegiances run deep because of that. So that’s always a concern.”
Del Pielago describes how, in his view, the housing authority’s mission to serve the lowest income residents of the District at times collides with Bowser’s priorities. He acknowledges that Bowser has included funds in the 2022 budget for affordable housing, including $50 million for long overdue repairs.
But, he adds, “in a very simple way, the housing authority has access to a significant amount of real estate in this city, and what we’ve seen under this administration is a whole lot of development and a whole lot of displacement. I think it’s clear what could potentially happen if the mayor has a lot of influence [over the agency].”
By law, the mayor currently nominates five members to the 11-member DCHA board of commissioners, who collectively serve as the executive director’s bosses. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio, who also serves as Bowser’s chief of staff, sits as an ex-officio member. The commission’s votes are often split 6-5. The fear is that Donald would solidify Bowser’s influence over the agency.
An effort this year to add two D.C. Council-appointed positions to the board failed. Instead the mayor and the Council each get one more nomination.
As interim director, Donald has already sought to usurp some of the board’s authority over DCHA contracts. Commissioners must approve contracts worth $250,000 or more. On Donald’s behalf, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds tried to increase that amount to $500,000 in the District’s 2022 budget bill. Bonds relayed Donald’s concern that the lower threshold for board approval was delaying needed maintenance and repairs.
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman successfully introduced an amendment to quash Bonds’ effort. As LL previously reported, contracting shenanigans were part of an internal audit that found $1.3 million in wasted funds.
Both Bonds and Silverman spoke favorably about Donald in general on Tuesday. But Silverman says she would like to see a national search for a permanent director.
For Lori Leibowitz, managing attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services Program, the biggest issue is with the process. DCHA announced the emergency meeting Wednesday and required those who wish to speak to sign up 24 hours in advance—or by 9 a.m. Thursday.
“It’s not even clear that they’ve interviewed Brenda Donald,” Leibowitz says. “I wouldn’t hire someone in my organization without interviewing them after they’ve had an interim role. And none of the roles in my organization are as big and public as executive director of D.C. Housing Authority. They’re very important.”
Del Pielago agrees.
“This is all happening in really short notice, and it kind of perpetuates this mistrust that residents and advocates have of the housing authority,” he says. “This is obviously a critical role and residents should have a say in it.”
He adds: “They move at their own time and don’t take into consideration the community they’re supposed to serve.”
This article has been updated to clarify Councilmember Silverman’s comments about Brenda Donald and the process for finding a permanent director.