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

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Two prominent leaders of the D.C. Housing Authority are caught up in conflicts of interest, or at least the appearance of them. The potential issues involve Director Brenda Donald and Commissioner John Falcicchio, both close allies of Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Falcicchio serves on the housing authority board by virtue of his job as deputy mayor for planning and economic development. He is also Bowser’s chief of staff.

Donald was installed as director after former DCHA Chair Neil Albert (another Bowser buddy) abandoned a national search. The 13-member board of commissioners, on which Bowser’s appointees hold a majority, approved Donald’s contract despite her lack of experience in development or affordable housing.

Donald’s brother, Adrian Washington, on the other hand, does have affordable housing experience, and therein lies the potential problem. In April, Donald asked the board of commissioners to approve a resolution authorizing funds for project-based housing vouchers, a subsidy that’s attached to the unit, not the tenant. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development is responsible for selecting which projects receive the subsidy, but as the agency responsible for managing D.C.’s voucher programs, the housing authority must approve those selections.

The group of landlords selected for a slice of the $3.5 million subsidy included Washington, CEO and founder of Neighborhood Development Company. The resolution says Washington’s firm was awarded $102,840 for five units in a 49-unit building on Eads Street NE.

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

During discussion on the resolution, Donald disclosed her relationship with Washington to the board and assured them that DCHA general counsel Lorry Bonds had determined no conflict of interest existed.

The disclosure drew the attention of Commissioner Bill Slover. During discussion on the resolution, Slover noted that DCHA’s role is not to select which landlords get the subsidy, but rather to ensure that the value of a given voucher matches the rental market for the area.

That process requires landlords to check DCHA’s website, where rent ceilings for each neighborhood are published. But the process is notoriously flawed, and Slover has been pushing for reform for years.

During the April meeting, he noted that DCHA started an internal process in 2019 (before Donald was hired) to evaluate their rents. By 2021, DCHA came up with five corrective actions to ensure they were paying the correct amount, Slover said. 

“We haven’t done any of those,” he said of the five items. “It’s pretty well known in the marketplace that our rents are higher than the market, and so I just want to understand why we would approve these rents without some ability to apply the rent reasonableness process that we are going to soon come up with.”

Slover said one of the corrective actions was for the executive director to bring a resolution reducing the rent ceiling by June of 2021.

“We have failed to correct this, and now we’re looking at $51 million dollars for the rent payments that you’re asking us to approve under a process that we know is flawed,” Slover said.

Donald acknowledged the failure to update rental rates but defended the resolution, saying that the housing deals were assembled years ago, and relied on DCHA’s published rents at the time. To change the rents at the end of the process would be unfair, she said. 

“This is the rent standard that we’re currently operating under until it gets changed,” Donald said. “And these deals were negotiated using that, based on the published rent standard that DCHA has, that developers who are putting together affordable housing packages have to rely on. That’s all we can do at this point.”

That’s when Donald disclosed that her brother was one of the developers set to receive voucher subsidy.

“I would suggest you maybe not push so hard to prevent this from being put into the resolution,” Slover, referring to his earlier suggestion of adding a provision that would allow DCHA to retroactively adjust the rent.

“That is very insulting, commissioner,” Donald said.

The resolution passed 5-3 with one abstention.

Asked this week about the potential conflict with her brother’s company, Donald says in an email that she acted appropriately.

“I disclosed my relationship for the record, as any ethical person would do,” Donald says in an email. “Ms. Bonds simply affirmed that I had made the proper disclosure. That’s it. There is no story here, unless you want to write about how two siblings from SE DC are working to expand affordable housing across the city.”

She did not respond to a follow-up asking for Bonds’ legal analysis showing a lack of a conflict of interest.

Slover tells City Paper that regardless of whether or not Donald is involved in the selection process, she should have recused herself from the discussion entirely. 

“If you have an appearance of a conflict, in my opinion the appropriate thing to do is to recuse yourself from all discussion around the issue,” he says. “ If someone declares a conflict, my expectation is they’re not pushing for an outcome.”

John Falcicchio, deputy mayor for planning and economic development and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s chief of staff, speaks at an event at the Howard Theatre. Credit: Alex Koma

In October, Falcicchio supported a resolution that Donald presented to the board that would have transferred a half-acre plot of DCHA land to the D.C. government, free of charge.

A 25-unit public housing building known as Western Mews used to sit on the property in Ivy City but was torn down in 1997, according to the resolution. It has since been turned into Lewis Crowe Park. The housing authority has no current plans to build on the property but is still responsible for its upkeep.

Donald told the board the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation would gladly take the land to “continue using it and maintaining it for Parks and Recreation purposes.” But earlier in the meeting, Falcicchio indicated that the District planned to explore other uses for the land.

That raised the question from Slover: Had DCHA taken similar steps to determine whether they could develop it into housing?

“Since we’re in the housing business, can we build housing there?” Slover asked.

“You can build housing anywhere,” DCHA development official Andre Gould said. “But we have not done any surface testing to test the soil.” Gould also revealed that the agency had not taken other preliminary steps, such as reaching out to the development community to ask if there was any interest.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that due to the location, because this is in an industrial zone, that it would be best suited as a public use project as a park or some other commensurate property,” Gould said. (There are commercial buildings across the street, but there are also residences and a church nearby, and the neighborhood is up-and-coming, Slover and Commissioner Kenneth Council pointed out.)

“I would personally like to understand whether that site is developable or not, given, you know, our housing constraints at the moment,” Slover said.

Slover also questioned why DCHA would just give away its land rather than selling or leasing it to the District. “We should not be giving away a half an acre piece of land for no compensation when we have 40,000 people on our waiting list. We could put an RFP out, we could bring in a private developer. There’s lots of options here,” he said.

Other commissioners chimed in to offer support for Slover’s position, including Commissioner Ann Hoffman, who had previously voiced support for the transfer.

“I hope everybody sitting here will reflect on how they will feel when the city gives this land to a developer who builds luxury housing on it,” Hoffman said, much to Falcicchio’s displeasure.

Falcicchio retorted by reciting Bowser’s talking points on affordable housing: more affordable housing built than any other D.C. mayor, unprecedented funding for the Housing Production Trust Fund, and affordable housing goals set by neighborhood.

“To have a commissioner say that we would turn something over just to build luxury housing is inaccurate, not based in any reality, and just not factual,” he said. Hoffman started to respond, but was cut off by board Chair Dionne Bussey-Reeder. “He made a campaign speech,” Hoffman objected.

Falcicchio’s defense of his boss highlights the inherent conflict that he represents on the board. As deputy mayor for planning and economic development and as Bowser’s chief of staff, he has a responsibility to the city and the mayor. As a board member he theoretically has an obligation to DCHA, its 8,000 public housing units, and more than 18,000 voucher holders.

By the end of the discussion, when it was clear that Slover had gained enough support for his objections, Donald agreed to table the resolution. The official vote to table the measure was 9-3 in favor. Falcicchio was among the dissenters. He did not immediately respond to City Paper’s email requesting a comment on the vote.

In a recent audit of DCHA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that some commissioners believe Bowser’s appointees almost always vote as a bloc “without individual review of the action requested.” (The vote to table the land giveaway resolution was a rare exception.) 

Last year, the D.C. Council added two commissioners to the DCHA board: one appointed by the mayor, the other by the Council. The original plan, pitched by At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, was to add two Council-appointed commissioners in an effort to dilute the majority held by the mayor’s appointees. 

But Silverman staffer Maya Brennan says the Office of the Attorney General advised them that even though DCHA is independent of the District government, because it carries out executive functions, the mayor must legally have control of the board. 

Others disagree. Britt Ruffin, director of policy and advocacy at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says based on their legal analysis, the Home Rule charter does allow the Council to restructure the board how it pleases.

“We all agree that one of the major issues [with DCHA] is the board of commissioners,” Ruffin says. “And the HUD report spoke to a lot of the problems with the board, and one of fundamental issues is mayoral influence. That is the underlying issue that creates a lot of the other issues.”