When it rains, it pours at the D.C. Housing Authority. As the agency finds itself mired in its biggest controversy in a generation, one of its top executives (with a controversial past) just headed for the exits.
Deputy Executive Director Victor Martinez left the agency on Oct. 7, DCHA spokesperson Sheila Lewis confirms to Loose Lips. He was only in that role, as one of two top lieutenants working directly under Executive Director Brenda Donald, since December 2021.
The circumstances of his departure are unclear, but it’s hard not to read meaning into the fact that it comes at the exact time DCHA is grappling with the fallout of a damning HUD report on its operations and governance. It’s particularly notable that Martinez managed the agency’s payments to landlords renting to voucher holders, tenant advocates say, when that issue was extensively criticized in the HUD analysis.
Lewis would only say that Martinez “ended his tenure with the agency, moving on to new endeavors in the next chapter of his career.” When LL inquired about whether he retired or moved on to a different job, Lewis said only: “I shared with you what he shared with us.” Martinez wrote in a text message that he made the decision to resign after taking some vacation time in September and said “there’s really nothing more to it” other than a general desire to move on.
“It was a personal decision that I had been considering/discussing for a while with my family,” he wrote. “I wish them well.”
Martinez’s hiring certainly raised a few eyebrows when City Paper first reported on it back in January. Advocates were concerned that the agency would hire an executive to such a senior role after he was fired from the New York City Housing Authority in 2015 for his role in selling off $18.1 million in new and unused equipment at a highly discounted rate.
Donald defended that hire at the time, however, arguing that Martinez’s firing was merely the result of a mayoral transition in the city (even though Martinez was fired a full year after then-Mayor Bill de Blasio took office). Notably, the inventory unit that Martinez oversaw was also the subject of a highly critical audit, according to the New York Daily News, but that did not seem to phase Donald.
“It often takes a few months for an administration to figure out its team, just as it has taken me to make decisions about the DCHA team,” Donald said back in January.
The process of team-building has taken Donald quite a bit of time. And the departure of a senior leader such as Martinez, listed on the agency’s org chart on a tier shared only by new Chief Operating Officer Rachel Joseph, raises serious questions about Donald’s assurances that she is slowly but steadily addressing the myriad issues outlined in the HUD report.
“Within six months, I built a new leadership team with the muscle to manage,” Donald wrote in a Oct. 13 Washington Post op-ed responding to the outrage over HUD’s findings. “We negotiated outdated labor contracts. We developed a technology plan to provide accurate data and management information, and now we are moving forward with the implementation.”
But advocates who frequently work with public housing tenants say this sort of staff churn has occurred consistently since Donald assumed responsibility of the agency. Consider that another executive Donald brought on board alongside Martinez in December, LaTweeta Smyers, only lasted in the role for a scant few months.
Smyers, who oversaw the authority’s management of federal housing vouchers, left the organization “this past spring,” Lewis says. DCHA re-hired Medina Johnson-Jennings, who previously worked as a deputy director in the voucher department, just last week, Lewis added.
The agency also hired Timothy Riley as its chief information officer last July, per documents sent to the D.C. Council ahead of oversight hearings, and he left the agency “this past spring,” Lewis says.
Daniel del Pielago, organizing director at the advocacy group Empower DC, tells LL “we’ve been asking for an organizational chart forever” to better identify who to contact about specific issues within DCHA, but haven’t received anything of the sort. Even some members of the housing authority’s governing board of commissioners say they’ve been unable to receive an updated org chart in recent months (LL has asked for one too).
Add it all up and this doesn’t exactly support arguments from Donald (and close ally Mayor Muriel Bowser) that the problems identified by HUD are merely historical ones that her newly assembled team of experts is speedily working to correct. It probably isn’t much fun to work for an agency with deep-seated problems that is receiving intense public scrutiny, so it’s hardly a surprise that top executives might not want to spend all that much time working under the microscope. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Donald’s stewardship over the last year either—former executive director Tyrone Garrett’s own challenges keeping a staff together amid internal squabbling certainly featured prominently in the run-up to his ouster last year.
For now, Bowser has gone to bat for Donald and argued she needs more time to mount a turnaround at DCHA (she has another year left on her contract). The question is whether that patience lasts as Attorney General Karl Racine keeps lobbing rhetorical bombs at the agency and lawmakers increasingly put in bills to reform it.
Just look at how the political winds have shifted since the report’s release. At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds told the Post on Oct. 7 that she was “not totally surprised” by the audit’s contents and praised Donald’s ability to “actually turn around agencies.” Ten days later, perhaps sensing the public outrage as she asks for another Council term, she was out with a statement saying she was “dismayed” by the agency’s “inadequate property management functions” and frustrated with “failure to accurately categorize the status” of its work modernizing units.
Bonds has pledged to prepare “substantive legislative proposals” in the coming days (though she did not outline how that might differ from a bill advanced by At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman on the agenda Tuesday) and says she’s asked for a meeting with Bowser on the topic.
“Over the next six months, there will be hearings on this issue,” Bonds pledged, no small thing for a lawmaker that has proven practically averse to oversight in her tenure chairing the Council’s housing committee.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is staying mum on whether he plans to propose keeping her at the head of that committee should she stay on the Council, but if the bad news just keeps mounting for DCHA, it may become untenable for him to keep Bonds in that seat, particularly with a bloc of left-leaning lawmakers ready to flex its muscles on committee assignments). There are a lot of hypotheticals left to consider, but Donald could well be facing some much tougher questions about what, exactly, is going on inside the agency.
This story has been updated with additional details from DCHA.