DC Housing Authority headquarters. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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It took all of five days for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to come to the conclusion about the D.C. Housing Authority that anyone even passively familiar with the agency already knew: DCHA is in complete shambles.

HUD conducted an on-site assessment of DCHA from March 7 to 11 that included interviews with board members, employees, and Director Brenda Donald, in addition to inspections of public housing units and analyses of the Housing Choice Voucher program.

The end result is a scathing 72-page audit of DCHA that reads like a top-to-bottom indictment of the entire agency from executive leadership to the board of commissioners to the employees, many of whom, the audit found, are not properly trained to do their jobs.

Donald declined to release the audit earlier this week, saying she intended to make the report public after the 60-day response period. But a copy found its way into City Paper’s hands Friday afternoon.

The report says DCHA is failing in virtually every function it performs: management of the HCV program, property management, tracking of finances and procurements, and oversight from the board of commissioners and the executive leadership. Ultimately, HUD says those failures have prevented DCHA from fulfilling its responsibility of providing “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing for its customers: D.C.’s lowest income residents.

Additionally, the audit says some commissioners believe Mayor Muriel Bowser’s appointees to the board do not sufficiently review materials before voting on proposals from the executive director, which include the agency’s budget, contracts over $250,000, and how much rent the agency can pay landlords for the voucher program. Some of the commissioners also note that the mayor’s appointees almost always vote as a group. Bowser appoints seven of the board’s 13 members, including her chief of staff, John Falcicchio, who sits on the board as an ex-officio member by virtue of his dual role as deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

In response to the audit, board Commissioner Bill Slover, who has long been pushing for systemic change, says in an email to City Paper that “it is clear from the HUD report that DCHA needs wholesale change in leadership at the executive and board level. This will allow the agency to begin to refocus on its true mission of serving its residents first, something this agency has clearly lost sight of.”

Donald disagrees with Slover’s assertion that the agency has lost sight of its responsibilities. “There has been a lack of oversight of this agency for the previous four years, and some board members were there at that time and have to take responsibility for that as well,” she says.

She acknowledges that the agency is “badly broken” and says she is committed to making the changes HUD is demanding.

HUD identified 82 findings, made 26 recommendations, and documented another five “observations” that amount to “serious violations” of federal statutes, department regulations, DCHA’s Move to Work agreement, and its voucher contract with HUD.

Here is a small sample of HUD’s findings and recommendations:

• HUD recommends Donald attend trainings on public housing and voucher administration, HUD policies and reporting requirements, procurement policies, and for her overall role as executive director.

• HUD recommends similar training for the 13 board of commissioners.

• HUD recommends Donald evaluate the agency’s structure and her staff’s ability to do their jobs.

• Donald’s $275,000 salary exceeds HUD’s salary cap. Her predecessor, Tyrone Garrett, made $245,000. The audit notes that Donald “has no experience in property development, property management or managing federal housing programs.” (In an interview with City Paper following the release of the report, Donald says DCHA conducted a compensation review, which showed that her salary is within the appropriate range.)

• As of June 2022, the occupancy rate for DCHA’s public housing was 76.4 percent, the lowest of any large housing authority in the entire country. Out of the 8,084 public housing units DCHA owns, 1,628 are vacant.

• DCHA doesn’t even know which of its units are vacant. During HUD’s site visit, inspectors saw “there were units that appeared vacant in [DCHA’s database], which DCHA showed as leased-up. Vacant units shown to the inspector indicated they were occupied in [the database].

• DCHA isn’t properly selecting tenants, transferring residents, or turning around units. The public housing wait list closed in 2013, and since that time DCHA has only transferred current tenants to other units and increased the number of overall vacant units. HUD found that property management staff “lack knowledge of unit turnaround procedures and could not provide the status of vacant units.”

• “Lease up”—meaning to lease out a unit—“time is excessive. Communication between tenant selection, property management, and maintenance department is poor,” HUD says.

• DCHA isn’t properly tracking the status of vacancies, offers to tenants, and leases. Each public housing development that HUD inspected “contained units that were 90-100% ready to lease up with no applicant known to the housing manager. In at least one instance, a unit was turned down by an applicant. After several months, a second applicant was not identified.”

• Procurement staff at times felt “constrained to take actions as directed by executive leadership and the board” instead of following policies and procedures.

• HUD identified multiple procurements that violated DCHA’s and HUD’s rules, including contracts awarded without competition and multiple contracts awarded for a single procurement. Specifically, HUD identified multiple contracts awarded to the software firm Verbosity for a total of $875,260 without any competition. HUD recommends the board investigate how the contracts were awarded.

• HUD also takes note of former board Chair Neil Albert’s failure to disclose his relationship with Paola Moya, whose architecture and design firm received two contracts from DCHA. Albert is under federal investigation for his alleged mixing of personal and professional affairs and resigned from the board shortly after those details came to light. HUD recommends the board pursue “disciplinary or civil actions” against past and current employees and board members who were involved. Donald says a review of the matter by an outside attorney is underway.

• DCHA’s public housing program has steadily deteriorated in the five years between 2016 and 2020. And the director’s “consolidated financial reporting” to the board obscured the program’s poor performance.

At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds tells the Washington Post that she expects DCHA will “grow from this and continue to do everything we can to make the properties quality living.” Bonds, who chairs the Council’s housing committee and has oversight of DCHA, has confidence in Donald’s ability to reform the agency.

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who sits on the housing committee, is less forgiving in her assessment. In a statement, she says the audit depicts a “completely dysfunctional” agency that needs a “complete leadership overhaul.” Silverman says the report is “a wake-up call for urgent and immediate action,” and she plans to introduce legislation to reform the agency.