Brenda Donald and Muriel Bowser at a campaign event
Brenda Donald, the head of DCHA, pictured with Mayor Muriel Bowser at a 2018 election victory party. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Mayor Muriel Bowser’s new spending plan comes with substantial, stable funding for the D.C. Housing Authority to make badly needed repairs to hundreds of public housing units—yet it also represents one of her clearest moves yet to seize control of the nominally independent agency.

To start with, some potential good news: Bowser’s budget proposal, released Wednesday, would be one of the largest cash infusions the housing authority has received from the city in recent history. With about $110 million dedicated to rehabilitation and repair work over the next three fiscal years, Bowser hopes to improve conditions at roughly 1,500 homes across DCHA’s portfolio.

The agency still has a steep hill to climb (with a maintenance backlog once estimated at roughly $2.5 billion), but Bowser’s proposal will be the sort of investment that the city generally hasn’t made in the housing authority, which the city helps to fund but does not fully manage.

There’s $50 million in Bowser’s budget for fiscal 2023 alone, equal to the amount the Council has allocated the past two budget years, then another $41.1 million in 2024 and $19.3 million in 2025. That stability is particularly important as the housing authority looks to plan for lengthy construction efforts, but it also represents major increases from past funding levels. The Council’s approved budget last year called for $20 million in 2023 and $15 million in 2024, with no money in 2025.

The new spending plan, which won’t be fully available publicly until Friday, will also include a detailed list of which properties are set to be “renovated and modernized over the next three years,” Bowser budget director Jenny Reed told reporters Wednesday. That is a marked departure from the old way of doing business. DCHA normally tells the city where its biggest needs are, then crosses its fingers and hopes for D.C. funding. Since the housing authority is, in theory, independent from the District government, there has not generally been such a listing of where city money is going. Once they have it, it’s theirs to spend as they see fit.

But this evolution looks directly attributable to the fact that Executive Director Brenda Donald, a longtime Bowser ally, is now in charge at DCHA. And it means that Bowser, who has steadily asserted more influence on the authority via its governing board, will be much more directly accountable for the improvements people in dilapidated homes do (or do not) see.

Former agency head Tyrone Garrett spent months crafting a “transformation plan” for the authority’s housing stock during his tenure, aiming to address 14 of DCHA’s most troubled properties, including about 2,610 units plagued by lead, mold, and other issues. Donald gave some early signs that she planned to go in a different direction after the housing authority’s board forced Garrett out last summer, and this budget represents the clearest indication yet that his old plans have been pushed aside. Instead, Bowser’s deputies worked directly with Donald’s team to develop a list of which properties will earn attention with this funding.

“I have more confidence in their leadership and their leadership’s ability to get things done,” Bowser said Wednesday in response to Loose Lips’ questions about this shift. “They’ve already demonstrated that they’re getting more dollars out of the door, and the more confident we are, the more investments we can make.”

Administration officials say that their work to identify DCHA properties most in need of repair actually started several years ago, with former Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt helping to sort out the buildings most in need of funds to make repairs (similar to his work on sussing out issues at Metro).

But DCHA rolled out that transformation plan in 2019, and by late 2020, Garrett was plotting out ways to fill it out on his own (though he did shop the plan around the Wilson Building). The budget passed in 2021 sent DCHA $50 million to help realize that vision, but it was ultimately silent on how that money should be spent. Bowser initially tried to exert more control over the rehabilitation process, but pulled back on those plans in the face of Council opposition.

This 2023 budget proposal reprises those efforts, which are still contingent on Council approval, but also aggressively steps up the number of units where the mayor is specifically calling for repairs. Bowser’s deputies say they went floor-by-floor, unit-by-unit to develop that plan, in tandem with DCHA, which they admit is a new approach. The transformation plan, by contrast, was more of an “estimate” of where work needed to happen, they say. This new effort is more specific.

In an emailed statement after this article was published, DCHA spokeswoman Sheila Lewis insisted that the agency makes decisions in collaboration with the administration and emphasized its independence.

“Our capital decisions and recommendations start with the transformation plan as a foundation for developing a more comprehensive review to preserve, rehabilitate and redevelop the entire portfolio, not just the properties outlined in the transformation plan,” Lewis wrote.

The money is set aside in a brand new rehab and maintenance fund for the agency, dedicated largely to smaller repairs, like replacing roofs or windows, focused specifically on units serving seniors and people with disabilities. The outright redevelopment of several properties, a key part of Garrett’s pitch, doesn’t seem to be included here.

But Bowser’s budget does include money for the development of three projects that will include replacement public housing units as part of the much-maligned New Communities Initiative: Barry Farm, Northwest One and Park Morton.

There’s a total of $219 million in redevelopment funding allocated across the three projects over the next six years, with $114 million for Barry Farm, $52 million for Park Morton and $53 million for Northwest One. It does not include funding for the fourth New Communities project at Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings, where DCHA is still trying to build off-site replacement units for residents and find a developer to manage its remake.

The upshot to all these numbers is that Bowser is perhaps tied more than ever before to how DCHA handles its myriad issues. She has close allies in place as both agency director and board chair, and now has direct control over how the agency addresses one of its biggest problems.

One of her mayoral rivals, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, has tried to make political hay out of the agency’s many missteps. Now, Bowser is grabbing the reins tighter than ever. What that all means for public housing residents remains to be seen.