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On a Sunday morning in January, housing developer Buwa Binitie had a request for the then-chair of the D.C. Housing Authority’s board of directors, Neil Albert.
Two of Binitie’s affordable properties, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Shaw and the Girard Street Senior Apartments in Brookland, hadn’t seen a rent increase since 2018. Both properties receive housing vouchers from DCHA, the agency responsible for managing D.C.’s public housing stock and administering federal and local housing vouchers. Would the agency pay him more money?
“It is unclear to us as owners how we should keep up with demanding increases in expenditure—particularly with insurance and utilities—with zero rental increases over the last four years,” Binitie wrote to Albert in an email thread shared with Loose Lips.
His request for a rent increase was granted despite an ongoing rent freeze at DCHA. Binitie copied then-DCHA Executive Director Tyrone Garrett, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and DCHA Commissioner John Falcicchio, and Garrett’s chief of staff, Bandele McQueen. DCHA commissioners are not involved in rent increase decisions. A DCHA source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, tells LL that Binitie’s associates had previously asked for rent increases, but were denied because of the rent freeze.
Getting no response, Binitie emailed Albert again that Friday to reiterate his request for higher rent from DCHA.
“Writing to see what if anything we can do to discuss how we go about our rental increases,” Binitie wrote. “I’ll appreciate your helping coordinate a meeting with all to determine next steps.”
A few weeks went by with no response, so Binitie emailed Garrett on Feb. 15, copying Albert and McQueen. Albert responded a week later: “Tyrone and Bandele will be back in touch with you this week.”
Binitie followed up with seven more emails until Garrett finally responded on April 28, saying he would authorize a 1.02 percent increase, the applicable annual adjustment factor published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The increase would apply retroactively back to 2018, Garrett wrote.
Garrett granted the approval against the advice of his staff, according to a DCHA source close to the situation, and despite a freeze on rent increases that’s been in place at the housing authority since 2019. A month after Garrett approved the increase, the board decided not to renew his contract. It’s unclear whether this action played a role in their decision.
Neither Garrett nor Albert returned LL’s calls or text messages. But DCHA spokesperson Tony Robinson confirms that both of Binitie’s properties received rent increases totaling nearly $41,000 in retroactive payments.
“At present we cannot account for why the 1.02 percent increase was granted as those responsible are no longer with D.C. Housing Authority,” Robinson writes in an email. Binitie was the only landlord to receive an increase in fiscal year 2021, according to Robinson. A DCHA source close to the situation tells LL other landlords had requested rent increases but were denied.
That Binitie, a prominent affordable housing developer and prodigious donor to Mayor Muriel Bowser, received rent increases when all other landlords were denied similar requests is the latest bit of scandal to come out of DCHA. Never mind the audit that found $1.3 million in wasted funds, allegations of retaliation and intimidation against DCHA’s internal auditor, or the alleged abuse in its police department.
Albert, the former DCHA board chair, whom Bowser appointed in 2017, resigned in October following reports that he signed off on a contract for an architecture and design firm owned by his girlfriend, Paola Moya. Albert and DCHA received federal subpoenas related to the matter last month.
Dionne Bussey-Reeder, another of Bowser’s political allies and her pick to replace Albert, owes D.C. more than $15,000 in income taxes, and is therefore technically ineligible to serve on the board, according to the Office of the Attorney General. Bussey-Reeder shut down a conversation about her eligibility when it came up during the DCHA board’s December meeting, and it’s unclear what action, if any, the board will take.
Binitie, for his part, has been tapped by Bowser three times since she took office to serve on the board of directors for the D.C. Housing Finance Agency. As an affordable housing developer, Binitie regularly has business in front of that very board. Although he recuses himself when the board votes on his company’s projects, sitting on a board with the power to award government subsidies to your own company, as well as to your competitors, invites questions about conflicts of interest. And Binitie’s inclusion of Albert and Falcicchio, who is also Bowser’s chief of staff, on emails asking for rent increases, raises questions about political favoritism.
As a board chair himself, perhaps Binitie should know better.
Binitie is the managing principal of Dantes Partners, a prominent affordable housing developer in D.C. He does business in Virginia and New York City, too. Binitie’s firm has closed more than $750 million in real estate transactions that have led to more than 2,100 units of workforce and affordable housing since its founding in 2006, according to his biography on the DCHFA’s website.
He’s also a generous political donor. Binitie has donated at least $67,850 as an individual and through Dantes Partners to political candidates and political action committees in D.C., according to the city’s campaign finance database. That includes $10,000 to each of Bowser’s inaugural committees and another $10,000 to her controversial FreshPAC, which exploited a loophole in campaign finance law that allowed for unlimited donations in nonelection years.
Longtime LL readers will recall Binitie’s supporting role in that fiasco. When Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh questioned him during a 2015 Council hearing, Binitie said he couldn’t remember who asked him to donate to FreshPAC. Soon after the hearing, Binitie accompanied Bowser’s delegation on a trip to China. About a month before he cut that $10,000 check in 2015, Bowser nominated Binitie to DCHFA’s board. (He got some of his money back when she folded the PAC under pressure.)
Binitie has served as the board’s chair since his confirmation, and Bowser has renominated him every two years since—most recently in 2019. (Binitie also served on the board in 2008 and 2009 on nominations from Bowser’s predecessor and mentor, Mayor Adrian Fenty.)
DCHFA is responsible for approving financing tools for low- to moderate-income housing, such as D.C.’s allotment of tax-exempt bonds. Similar to agencies in other states, the DCHFA board votes on whether to award government subsidies based on recommendations from the agency’s staff. The tax-exempt bonds are a relatively modest subsidy in the grand scheme of an affordable housing project, but they come with low-income housing tax credits that are almost essential.
Binitie’s seat on the board is more than just a resume booster. His company often has projects come before the board for a vote—as do his fellow board members.
To be fair to Binitie and his board buddies, who include Bryan “Scottie” Irving of Blue Skye Construction and Development, Stephen Green of the NHP Foundation, and former Deputy Mayor and Director of D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development Stanley Jackson of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, they recuse themselves from discussion and votes on their own projects.
But this glaring conflict of interest means board members must vote on other members’ projects knowing that their own projects will come up for a vote. It also creates a musical chairs situation. Take, for example, the April 27, 2021, board meeting, when Binitie recused himself from both items the board considered: up to $26 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Clara on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and an extension of a $1 million loan for the V Street Apartments in Anacostia.
In Binitie’s absence, Green chaired the first part of the meeting, and the board unanimously approved the tax-exempt bonds for the Clara. Green then recused himself from the discussion and vote on V Street Apartments. The board unanimously approved the loan extension as well.
DCHFA Executive Director Christopher Donald says in an emailed statement sent via an agency spokesperson that all board members adhere to DCHFA’s conflict of interest process, which requires that they disclose any conflicts at a board meeting and in writing.
“The Board member must refrain from participating in any deliberations or discussion (preliminary or final, at a public meeting or otherwise), authorization, vote, or implementation of any DCHFA transaction in which a board member has a conflict,” Donald’s statement says. “The board member is not permitted to be present during any discussion or vote regarding the matter in which a conflict of interest has been identified and may not return to the meeting until all discussion of the matter has been completed.”
An emailed statement from Bowser’s office in response to LL’s inquiry about conflicts of interest among board members says the mayor nominates board members who bring expertise in their fields and who represent the interests of D.C. residents.
“That’s what our Administration has done and will continue to do,” the mayor’s statement says, noting that the D.C. Council must confirm her nominations. “We hold all appointees to the highest ethical standards and all appointees are required to participate in annual ethics training.”
But according to board minutes, Binitie participated in the discussion and voted on a $1 million loan for the Clara in May of 2019—the same project he recused himself from in April of this year. His firm is listed as a development consultant and property manager on the project, according to the April minutes.
Donald’s email says Binitie was not affiliated with the Clara when he voted on the loan in 2019. Binitie did not respond to LL’s emails or a phone message left at his office.
During a 2019 hearing in the then-Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization on his most recent reappointment to the DCHFA board, Binitie assured At-Large Councilmembers Elissa Silverman and Anita Bonds, who chairs the committee, that he recuses himself “from every single transaction” that involves his company.
Since he became chairperson in 2015, Binitie testified that DCHFA had financed 7,675 units of rental housing and helped 1,546 residents buy homes. Of those 7,675 financed units, his firm has had a hand in 435. That number represents about 20 percent of the 2,100 rental units Binitie said Dantes Partners has created in D.C. and elsewhere.
Asked during the hearing whether any board members have voted against his projects, Binitie said he didn’t know. Had he ever voted against an application from a fellow board member? Silverman asked.
“I don’t recall,” Binitie said. “We see a lot of transactions come before the board.”
Donald says in an email that the board hasn’t turned down any transactions from any developer in the past five years, though sometimes the board asks the developer to restructure the deal. “The mission of the agency is to create more units of affordable housing for D.C.’s residents and the agency works with the developers to realize its mission,” Donald’s email says.
Of all the board meetings convened since Binitie was confirmed in 2015, during which the board voted on an application for financing, and for which minutes are available online, board members recused about 40 percent of the time, according to LL’s review of minutes.
Binitie was confirmed, 9-4, on Jan. 7, 2020, by the full D.C. Council. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, former At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, Cheh, and Silverman dissented.
Those same four councilmembers cointroduced legislation shortly after the vote that would have barred DCHFA board members from having business before the board while they serve. But the bill died in Bonds’ housing committee without a hearing.
A Bonds staffer tells LL that she thinks Silverman’s approach is “overly broad.” Instead, the staffer says, Bonds is considering introducing legislation that would require a board member to disclose a conflict as soon as an application arrives at the agency.
But LL wonders what effect Bonds’ proposal will have. There are only five members on the board. Wouldn’t DCHFA staff already know if a board member submits an application?
The staffer also echoed Binitie’s defense of his seat on the board: Affordable housing deals are complicated, so you want people with expertise evaluating the applications. Silverman doesn’t buy the argument that barring those actively building affordable housing would leave the board without qualified members.
“Given that a lot of affordable housing goes to a small group of developers in our city and those people are interacting socially, practically, it’s very difficult to see how they would vote against each other,” Silverman says. “I’m not implying they’re unethical. I’m just saying we’re putting people in the difficult position of having to vote against friends and business colleagues.”