Brenda Donald DCHA
DCHA Director Brenda Donald responds to claims of malfeasance at the agency in front of the Wilson Building. Credit: Alex Koma

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When budget season arrives in D.C., it’s pretty much unheard of for government agencies to refuse increased funding from politicians. Count this as yet another way the D.C. Housing Authority stands out from the crowd.

The embattled agency stands to get a hefty chunk of change from the D.C. government in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s new budget. She’s proposing to send the (nominally independent) public housing authority $115 million over the next two years for badly needed repair work. But At-Large Councilmember Robert White was calling for a much greater commitment from Bowser given the agency’s well-documented issues maintaining its properties. As the Council’s new housing committee chair, White is proposing a $100 million annual investment in DCHA’s capital projects over the next five years.

The response from DCHA Executive Director Brenda Donald: Thanks, but no thanks.

“Advocates were in a meeting with her a few weeks back and that number came up and she just laughed at that,” Eliana Golding, a senior policy analyst focused on housing at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, tells Loose Lips. “Her message was, ‘We couldn’t spend $100 million if we had it, we don’t have a plan for that.’”

Donald has spoken before about the authority’s problems getting money out the door. And improving the agency’s capacity to spend money in meaningful ways was a big part of her focus when she took the job nearly two years ago. But the fact that DCHA is still struggling in this department is a bit perplexing to activists, considering that Bowser has held up Donald as an experienced government veteran that can stabilize the agency’s processes for whomever takes it over next. And the rhetoric that DCHA would be better off without more money seems to cut against warnings from Donald’s predecessor, Tyrone Garrett, that the agency had something like a $2 billion maintenance backlog as recently as a few years ago.

“The thread we’ve heard from Donald is she feels they have enough money,” says Daniel del Pielago, organizing director at the advocacy group Empower DC. “She thinks it’s not a money issue, it’s an implementation issue and a supply-line issue. But, as people who have been watching this for a while, it’s both interesting and concerning that we’ve gone from the former director saying the sky is falling to Donald saying something very different. It doesn’t make sense, really.”

DCHA Chief Operating Officer Rachel Joseph tells LL that the agency is, in fact, “doing an extensive amount of work,” and she notes that the city has made other investments in the housing authority beyond than the $115 million in Bowser’s proposed budget. The District also helps fund housing voucher programs that DCHA administers and Bowser wants to send another $183.6 million to help power three projects that are part of the long-running New Communities Initiative, an effort to redevelop public housing into mixed-income properties in a public-private hybrid model.

“We have spent the last 20 months building up and supplementing internal staffing capacity and believe that the funding allocated in the mayor’s budget is the amount we would be able to spend,” Joseph writes in an email. Bowser’s deputies echoed that message in their presentations to Council over the past few weeks, noting that they coordinated directly with Donald to come up with the $115 million figure.

This is all a bit baffling to White. He says Donald reviewed her plans for the coming months with him just weeks before Bowser released her budget in late March, and this $115 million is “incredibly, impossibly low” to bring those proposed repairs to fruition. White notes that the mayor’s proposal “only adds $10 million to what we’ve been doing, and we haven’t been doing enough,” citing disturbing statistics like DCHA’s 10,000 unfinished work orders and its 2,000 vacant apartments.

“I don’t understand this disconnect, because what I heard from the housing authority is different from whatever was in the budget,” White says. “We need to be very serious and clear about what the future of public housing is. And right now I feel like we’re being backed into a corner where we will have to say, ‘We’re going to get rid of public housing.’”

White pressed Donald on this point during the agency’s April 10 budget hearing, and he recalled seeing earlier versions of the mayor’s budget that would’ve included funding for the agency in fiscal years 2026 and 2027, instead of just 2024 and 2025. But, Donald said again, “We got what we have asked for.” The authority may not have had much success getting more money from Bowser, considering the cuts to housing programs elsewhere in the budget, but its leaders are clear that they’re not interested in it (publicly, at least).

When Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker mentioned the $2 billion maintenance gap figure and asked how DCHA will account for that with just a fraction of the funding, Donald gave one of her clearest explanations yet of the agency’s approach to housing repairs.

“The $2 billion estimate that was given a couple of years ago was really to completely rehabilitate 14 of what were then determined to be the lowest performing properties,” Donald said during the hearing. “We since have moved into a focus on rehabbing properties and bringing them up to quality standards, life and health and safety standards for residents who currently live here. At the same time we are also doing long term redevelopment using other sources of funding. So it’s a very complicated packaging of funding that is available.”

Indeed, it looks as if the agency has moved firmly away from trying to redevelop its most dilapidated properties, opting for more modest rehab work instead. Consider that Garrett proposed back in 2020 to fully redevelop six of DCHA’s properties: Benning Terrace, Greenleaf Gardens, Garfield Townhouses, Kelly Miller/LeDroit Apartments, Stoddert Terrace/Fort Dupont Dwellings, and Lincoln Heights. But redevelopment looks like it’s off the table for four of those properties, with a fifth very much in doubt. The agency’s governing board approved plans to redevelop Greenleaf last year, and Lincoln Heights is set to be included as part of the New Communities program. But the agency has only used $12.9 million for rehab work at Lincoln Heights and at the neighboring Richardson Dwellings, according to its responses to Council oversight questions. And Bowser’s budget hasn’t included any money for redevelopment at Lincoln Heights as she turns to private developers to build replacement units to help people move off the properties.

Instead, DCHA plans to spend $69 million of the $115 million it stands to receive over the next two years on “comprehensive rehabilitation on a handful of properties,” Joseph says, focusing primarily on Highland Addition and Langston Terrace. That money will also pay for “architectural and engineering design work” at Horizon House, Regency House, and Harvard Towers, she says.

DCHA will spend $25 million on “capital repairs of major systems (e.g. HVAC, roofing, electrical)” at a much broader group of properties, Joseph says. The agency plans to make upgrades at Benning Terrace, Fort Dupont Dwellings, Garfield Terrace (Senior), Hopkins Apartments, James Creek, Kelly Miller/LeDroit, Kenilworth Courts, Regency House, Richardson Dwellings, Sibley Plaza, Stoddert Terrace, Syphax Gardens, and Woodland Terrace. Other big expenditures include $8.4 million for the “installation of annunciated fire alarm systems in all multifamily buildings and fire suppression systems at family properties” and $5.5 million for staffing, Joseph says.

All in all, the properties set to receive attention don’t look all that different from what Garrett proposed. Langston Terrace was in line to receive major rehabilitation funding under his old plans, and it is once again a target for Donald. Perhaps the bigger changes involve strategies for pursuing the improvement of these properties.

For instance, Joseph suggested that the agency could pursue using the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program at complexes like Potomac Gardens and Judiciary House. The program involves a complex dance for DCHA that is ultimately aimed at saving the authority some cash while still improving conditions for residents: The agency agrees to take over ownership of the properties from the federal government, which allows it to accept private financing for repairs. In exchange, the feds fork over more money in vouchers to subsidize rents for people living there. It’s a program DCHA has used at a variety of properties in recent years, even as some experts worry it can erode tenants’ rights.

The agency’s harshest critics have long suggested, however, that a move toward strategies such as RAD, and away from redevelopment, undermine the authority’s central mission: owning, operating, and building public housing. There are certainly structural reasons why public housing agencies all across the country have made this change—the federal government’s ongoing disinvestment in public housing chief among them—but the agency’s acquiescence in the face of this shift has only hastened the increasing dominance of private developers and their backers within city government. Redeveloping a property isn’t a perfect solution, as it can frequently require residents to relocate elsewhere, but keeping these projects public can ensure lower rents. (This was a particularly popular line of criticism from ex-DCHA board member Bill Slover, who was forced off the board last year after raising just these sorts of complaints.)

DCHA certainly has plenty of other problems to worry about: There’s the ongoing matter of how Donald won a $41,000 bonus, the series of allegations of corruption within the agency’s voucher programs, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s demands for reforms following a scathing audit of the authority. But the question of how DCHA spends these dollars will impact its future in the long term, as White points out, since the very existence of public housing in the city will be shaped by whether the agency can stop these properties from literally falling apart.

Donald, for her part, probably won’t be around to determine how exactly this money gets spent. She’s made it clear that she considered retiring last year and will likely leave once her contract expires in a few months. But, eventually, someone else will have to decide if her approach is actually working or not.

“We’re really glad there’s this ongoing commitment from the city to fund repairs. But will it play out the way we’d like it to?” del Pielago says. “That’s an open question.”