Former DCHA Commissioner Bill Slover in his basement office. Credit: Mitch Ryals

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Those who have watched enough D.C. Housing Authority board of commissioners meetings over the past eight years or so have likely noticed a pattern. Nearly every resolution that the executive directors offer, which must be voted on and approved by a majority of the board, has passed with at least one dissenter: Bill Slover.

“The D.C. Housing Authority’s current condition is a direct result of the mayor’s housing policies,” Slover says. “There’s no other conclusion to come to. She’s run it for eight years. She handpicked the executive director who is there today. She brought in Neil Albert, a known operator.”

Occasionally, Slover has been able to peel off one or two other commissioners to his side. And on rare occasions, he has raised enough of a stink to convince a majority of fellow commissioners to vote “no.” But more often than not, the core of seven commissioners appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser has been too powerful to overcome. They essentially act as a rubber stamp on the director’s proposed actions, rather than a critical eye, Slover says.

The mayoral voting bloc was called out in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s scathing audit of DCHA, released in October 2022, which noted an observation from some commissioners that mayoral appointees often “vote as a group without individual review of the action requested.” 

Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson pointed to the HUD report and somewhat vague characterizations of “dysfunction” on the housing authority board as justification for an emergency bill to throw out most of the existing board members and replace them with a smaller “stabilization and reform” board. Some of the new board members also served on the old board, but all of them are appointed by Bowser (with agreement from the Council).

The final bill eliminated nearly all of the non-mayoral appointees, who also happened to be the agency’s most vocal critics: Slover, who served on behalf of the Consortium of Legal Services Providers; Ann Hoffman, an attorney selected by the Washington Metro Labor Council, and Janet Parker and Kenneth Council, both of whom were elected to the board by public housing residents.

City Paper caught up with the four of them as they reflected on their time as commissioners. They described what it was like watching politicians eliminate their seats and gave their outlook for the future of the housing authority that provides housing and administers vouchers for more than 50,000 of D.C. lowest income residents. A common thread running through each interview was a deep distrust of Bowser and current DCHA director Brenda Donald, along with a renewed dose of cynicism for the D.C. Council.

In the weeks leading up to the final vote on Dec. 20 (the Council’s final legislative session of 2022), Slover says he was confident that cooler heads would prevail. From his perspective, Bowser’s bill was a blatant attempt to silence critics—the very people who uncovered the dysfunction and sounded the alarms in the first place.

Although he spoke with some councilmembers, Slover says none of them proactively reached out to him for input on the agency’s inner workings. The idea that a legislature would discard an entire board without asking questions of its members or holding any public hearings (emergency legislation isn’t required to pass through a committee, but requires nine votes instead of the usual seven) seemed absurd.

“I feel like Chairman Mendelson really didn’t have a firm grasp on what was going on at the agency,” Slover says of his conversation with the chairman, who took a leading role in shepherding the bill through the Council. “He was 100 percent hanging his hat on this described ‘dysfunction.’”

Hoffman and Council echo Slover’s frustration.

“Nobody has ever defined what ‘dysfunction’ meant in this case,” Hoffman says.

“It was not dysfunctional,” Council, the former commissioner, adds. “They wanted to use that word. It was us standing our ground and doing our due diligence.”

Mendelson reiterates his belief that the board had become dysfunctional and says the bill was not intended to target Slover for removal.

“I appreciate that he has been a critic for years, and in fact I’ve talked with him about problems with the housing authority years ago,” Mendelson says. “But it’s a bit of aggrandizement to say he’s the reason. … It was more about the fact that the board, I guess for months, hasn’t been able to make decisions.”

It’s true that spats between individual commissioners and between some commissioners and Donald made for contentious monthly meetings. But those tiffs ultimately did not interfere with the actions Donald requested the board to approve.

The Council narrowly approved the legislation reshaping the board by a vote of 9-4. After initially expressing her opposition, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau provided the crucial ninth vote.

Nadeau was unavailable for an interview, but her spokesperson, David Connerty-Marin, explains that she opposed the mayor’s initial proposal, but supported the final version after At-Large Councilmember Robert White came up with a “much-improved revision.”

From the dais, Nadeau acknowledged those who believe the bill “constitutes a tilting of power toward the mayor,” but she argued that by installing a pre-approved slate of new board members, the Council actually had more say in the board’s makeup than they normally would.

Nadeau added that she strongly supports following up with more comprehensive, permanent legislation, such as the bill Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto and former At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman offered as an alternative to Bowser’s bill.

But to Slover and company, all they see is a flip-flop.

“She is so absolutely dedicated to the Park Morton redo,” Hoffman says. “She claims it as her legacy publicly, and I think the legacy is supposed to be bringing affordable housing to Ward 1.”

Slover recalls meeting with Nadeau a few years ago about Park Morton. The huge public housing complex has been part of the long-delayed New Communities initiative that started in 2004 under then-Mayor Anthony Williams with the goal of minimizing displacement by building replacement units before demolishing the original buildings. Nearly 20 years later, the developments still aren’t complete.

When Slover met with Nadeau years ago, he says DCHA found lead in Park Morton and he was looking for her support in pivoting from a multi-phase redevelopment plan to a single phase so residents wouldn’t continue living in the environmental hazard. 

“This was like an operational call versus a political call, and the political call wins out,” he says. “I tried to go to her and explain this to her, and they were like, ‘we don’t believe you, and this is how it’s gonna happen, and we promised one-for-one replacement.’ And sure enough, that didn’t happen either.”

Connerty-Marin disputes the assertion that Bowser used Park Morton as leverage for Nadeau’s vote. “There’s nothing left on Park Morton that could have influenced her vote on DCHA,” Connerty-Marin says. “And it never came up in discussions with the Mayor about the DCHA legislation.”

In their efforts to speak with elected officials, Slover and Hoffman say they never received a response from Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. Allen says he searched his email inbox, texts, and phone messages, but does not have a record of either of them attempting to contact him and would have been happy speak with them. 

Allen did, however, have conversations with Denise Blackson, the third elected resident commissioner, and the only one who remains on the new board. (Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White introduced an amendment to allow the other elected resident commissioners to complete their terms, which Allen supported, but it was voted down.)

Allen says those conversations with Blackson, who is also a D.C. government employee, led him to insist that she continue to serve on the board and to introduce his own amendment that provides the new board with two full-time staff members to assist in their duties. The staffers are meant to address the longstanding concern that DCHA’s executive directors and staff do not provide the board with complete and accurate information.

So what is the outlook these commissioners’ have for the agency’s future?

Council (the former elected commissioner) cautions new board members to look at materials provided by Donald with a critical eye. 

“Brenda is going to paint you all a picture of, ‘look what I’ve done,’” he says. “But you all have to look behind that curtain.” 

He recalls a rare vote that Donald lost last year: an effort to give away a piece of land to the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation at no charge. The property at West Virginia Avenue and Mt. Olive Road NE is now known as Lewis Crowe Park, and Donald argued that offloading the property would save the agency on maintenance costs. But she introduced a resolution without first doing any sort of analysis to determine if the housing authority could build housing there. Council wonders if the administration will try to reintroduce the resolution with the new board.

Parker, who only began her tenure representing senior and disabled housing authority residents in March of 2022, is watching to see whether the agency addresses the “systemic problems” with procurement that were identified in HUD’s report. HUD said DCHA’s procurement suffered from a lack of oversight by the board and director and noted the board had not adopted a procurement policy as required.

DCHA’s internal Office of Audit and Compliance also found procurement malfeasance that amounted to millions of dollars in overcharges to the agency across at least three contracts.

In response, Parker drafted a resolution to establish such policies, to protect whistleblowers, and increase staffing for the internal audit and compliance office, which would be responsible for monitoring procurements.

But Parker says she was scolded for working directly with DCHA’s legal department to draft the resolution, and then-Board Chair Dionne Bussey-Reeder refused to put her resolution on the agenda. Asked why Parker’s resolution wasn’t agendized, Bussey-Reeder says via text that she doesn’t recall.

The whole thing has left the four of them feeling despondent about the future of the housing authority and D.C.’s local governance. The question that continues to rattle around in Slover’s head is: What was the emergency? The new “stabilization and reform board” met for the first time just last week in closed session. Their first public meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday.

“It feels like our form of government is ineffective and inefficient and needs to be changed,” Slover says. “Because if our future and the future of all these critical issues is relying on 13 people who don’t ask questions, we need more than 13 people. We cannot be dependent on people who are unwilling to ask questions and just go along to get along.”