DC Housing Authority Headquarters
DC Housing Authority headquarters. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Toward the end of the D.C. Housing Authority board’s meeting before the meeting (known as the “Brown Bag” session) on Sept. 14, Vice Chair Kenneth Council could sense that several of his fellow commissioners were uncomfortable moving forward with a request from Executive Director Brenda Donald, so he suggested they table the discussion until next month.

Donald had asked for approval to pay rents for voucher holders that are nearly double what the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development considers to be fair market for the D.C. metro area. HUD updates its fair market rent calculation every year, and local housing authorities can approve rates above that figure to align with their goals. The DCHA board had not done so since 2019, when it approved rents of up to 187 percent above HUD’s figure for that year.

This month, Donald asked the board to set the ceiling at 187 percent of HUD’s revised FY2023 figure, which takes into account rents in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. She pitched the proposal as a way to ensure that the agency can continue to afford paying higher rents in wealthier neighborhoods. She emphasized that rents won’t begin to increase until FY2024.

With some commissioners’ questions unanswered, Council suggested the board table the discussion. At the advice of DCHA general counsel Lorry Bonds, commissioners voted 7-5 to remove the item from the agenda for their public meeting that would follow. But that wasn’t the end of it.

Board Chair Dionne Bussey-Reeder, who had participated in the vote, unilaterally discarded the results, arguing that it was the chair’s responsibility to set the agenda.

“Explain this last vote,” Bussey-Reeder asked Bonds. “Is the vote legitimate or illegitimate? At this point, I’m not interested in tabling this discussion. I want to move forward. … Please explain to me how we move forward.”

Bonds apologized for the confusion: “At the time, I thought you were not on [the call] because [Vice Chair] Council had been running the meeting. … Yes, you have the opportunity to set the agenda.”

Bonds’ response left commissioners confused and set the tone for the turmoil and dysfunction that would come in the public meeting. The ensuing discussion during that four-hour meeting is indicative of some commissioners’ skepticism of Donald, who has been tasked with fixing a critical housing agency that manages vouchers for nearly 19,000 people and has been long in need of repair. The board discussion also revealed a level of animosity among commissioners themselves.

Dionne Bussey-Reeder, chair of the D.C. Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

In the monthly meeting, Commissioner Bill Slover questioned the usefulness of setting a blanket ceiling when rents can vary so widely across the city. He questioned how DCHA calculated the current rates published on its website, which signal to landlords the maximum rents the agency will pay based on bedroom size and neighborhood. He also suggested the agency is paying above market rate. (Donald disputed that suggestion.)

Slover asked Donald to explain how DCHA approves rent for a given unit, but Donald objected to the relevance of the question. “That’s not what we’re asking the board to do. That’s not relevant to the resolution at hand,” she said before asking Bussey-Reeder to intervene.

“Madam Chair, are you open to this line of questioning?” Donald asked.

Until that moment, Bussey-Reeder had hardly participated in the virtual meeting. Her camera was mostly turned off, and Council was running the show in her place. At Donald’s prompting, Bussey-Reeder interjected, saying Donald did not have to answer Slover’s question.

“The question will not be answered,” Bussey-Reeder told Slover. “Is there another board member who has a question?”

Slover said he had one final question that he wanted to get on the record.

“OK, get your question on the record,” Bussey-Reeder said. “Brenda, you do not have to respond to this. I’m telling you you do not have to respond. I’ll respond to you, Bill.”

Slover requested a spreadsheet with all of DCHA’s current rental agreements broken down by neighborhood and bedroom size. That information would be useful in determining if DCHA is overpaying on rent for its nearly 19,000 voucher recipients, and if so, by how much, he said.

Bussey-Reeder acknowledged Slover’s request and promised that Donald would follow up. But her intervention raises questions about her leadership of a board tasked with oversight of Donald and the agency. Imagine if Council Chair Phil Mendelson told Unique Morris-Hughes she didn’t have to answer At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman’s questions at a hearing.

Bussey-Reeder has not responded to City Paper’s phone calls or replied to a text message or emails. Asked for his reaction to the meeting, Slover says, “maybe the chair has lost faith in the executive director to answer questions.” Two weeks after the Sept. 14 meeting, DCHA has not provided the spreadsheet he requested.

Brenda Donald at a Nov. 6, 2018 election victory party for Mayor Muriel Bowser at Franklin Hall Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

Donald, for her part, acknowledges that her interactions with Slover and other board members have been tense since she took over for Tyrone Garrett in August 2021. She tells City Paper she’s worked to provide the board of commissioners with research to support her decisions, and notes that Slover has voted against most proposals she and her predecessor put forward.

“It’s frustrating that we do our work, prepare and bring information and materials to the board that have been thoroughly researched and vetted, and there’s a negative response,” she says.

Donald pushes back against Slover’s suggestion that DCHA is paying landlords more than market rate. “We went down this road thinking we’re paying these high rents, but we’re not,” she says. “And in fact we’re paying below market.”

But there is some evidence to the contrary.

M Street Partners, for example, framed an entire pitch to prospective investors around the idea that the government will pay above market rate rent in at least some cases. In an “investor deck” dated January 2021, the firm stated that it prioritizes housing for “voucher/program-based recipients” because the majority or entirety of their rent is paid by the government and because the rents can be higher than market rate.

“The end goal is to create high quality housing for government backed residents in neighborhoods where the arbitrage from the voucher rate can be greater than the market rate in many cases,” the pitch says. “Our completed projects produce superior cash flow and, as a result, top of the market value.” A representative for M St. Partners says the pitch was canceled and never made publicly.

A recent DCist report discovered two different rents for very similar one-bedroom apartments in the Park MacArthur building in Foxhall Village—one listed on a site advertising subsidized apartments for $2,467 a month, and another on apartments.com for $1,900 a month. And an analysis of DCHA’s rent payments for 2021 revealed that the agency overpaid landlords by $21 million; since those findings were released, the agency has said they were based on flawed data.

In general, Donald says DCHA’s practice for approving individual rents goes like this: A landlord submits their rent request, and DCHA compares that figure with the numbers published on the agency’s website. “If it’s at or under the published rent, for the most part, we say, ‘OK, that meets the standard of rent reasonableness,’” Donald says. But she emphasizes that the agency also checks to make sure the landlord isn’t submitting rents that are higher than other, similar units in the neighborhood and says landlords must sign a contract attesting that the rent for a voucher recipient is not higher than a non-voucher holder.

At the Sept. 14 meeting, the board ultimately approved Donald’s request on a 7-5 vote. All “yes” votes came from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s appointees to the board, along with Council-appointed Commissioner Raymond Skinner. The three commissioners elected by public housing residents joined Slover and Commissioner Ann Hoffman, who are nominated to the board by legal service providers and the central labor council respectively, in voting “no.”

Under the approved changes, the rent ceilings will generally increase from:

• $2,520 to $2,971 for studio apartments

• $2,648 to $3,020 for one-bedroom apartments

• $3,113 to $3,437 for two-bedroom apartments

• $4,069 to $4,229 for three-bedroom apartments

• $5,008 to $5,897 for four-bedroom apartments

DCHA has been under a rent increase freeze since 2019 (unless you’re a well-connected developer), but Donald has signaled that she will start to adjust rental rates starting in fiscal year 2024, as the agency’s budget allows. To do that, she’ll rely on a third-party analysis of median rents in neighborhood “clusters.”

According to that analysis, rent for a two-bedroom in Capitol Hill will increase slightly, from $3,113 to $3,150, decrease from $2,331to  $2,253 in Brookland, decrease from $2,403 to $1,825 in Brightwood, increase from $1,557 to $1,649 in Congress Heights, and increase from $1,650 to $2,006 in Anacostia. A spreadsheet of the current rents posted on DCHA’s website shows the agency pays between 164 percent and 185 percent of HUD’s fair market rate for most neighborhoods in Northwest and Northeast. But in several neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River (Fort Dupont Park, Anacostia, Barry Farm, Deanwood, Congress Heights, and Marshall Heights), DCHA’s published rent thresholds are below HUD’s figure.

If all that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Commissioners raised multiple questions that went unanswered at the Sept. 14 meeting, and it’s not clear why the board’s approval was so urgent. As Hoffman pointed out, there was no consequence for postponing the vote.

Bussey-Reeder’s occasional disappearance from the screen only added to the confusion: During a brief pause during the discussion, when the chair of the meeting would typically call on the next commissioner to speak, Slover asked who was running the meeting. “Unclear,” he said.

“It’s very clear to you who’s running the meeting,” Bussey-Reeder responded. “Commissioner Council is running the meeting, but I’m still your chair.”

“I don’t know how that works,” Slover said.

“It’s working today. It’s working today,” Bussey-Reeder said. “Thank you, Commissioner Council, please proceed.”