Bowser, Mendelson Push for a Last-Minute Christmas Miracle on DCHA Reform

By Alex Koma

The outcome could portend the dynamics on a new, more progressive Council next year.

Opinions may vary on whether Mayor Muriel Bowser has been naughty or nice this year. But she may very well see her wish for public housing reform granted either way.

Chairman Phil Mendelson will attempt to play Santa Claus once again Tuesday when he makes one last push to get changes to the D.C. Housing Authority’s governing board passed before the end of the year. Mendelson opted for a tactical retreat at the Council’s last meeting, deferring consideration of the bill until he could make a few more tweaks and marshal a bit more support for the hastily crafted emergency legislation.

If the bill fails for a second time, Bowser and Mendelson will be stuck with a big lump of coal. Not only will they need to wait until the new (and arguably more progressive) Council is seated, they’ll need to contend with efforts by other lawmakers who are offering broader reforms to the troubled agency. The mayor has thus far seemed determined only to dissolve and then re-assemble DCHA’s Board of Commissioners (stripping it of some vocal mayoral critics in the process), but Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman have offered up a broader (if still vague) bill to address the agency’s operations directly.

Who knows whether Pinto and Silverman’s legislation will survive without Silverman (or vocal DCHA critic Attorney General Karl Racine) in office in 2023. But Mendelson and the mayor would surely rather see their bill pass now while the Council is more friendly and public scrutiny of DCHA remains so intense.

The jury is out, however, on whether the Bowser-backed bill will make it over the hump. Emergency legislation needs nine votes instead of a simple seven-vote majority to pass, so Mendelson is already facing a tougher battle than usual. The fact that Pinto joined Silverman’s legislation (in a case of some strange bedfellows) could signal that the effort will be an uphill climb. If Pinto votes with other left-leaning lawmakers against the bill, it’s hard to see how Mendelson counts to nine. It probably takes defections from nontraditional allies like Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White to keep the bill alive.

The good news for Mendo: Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray has already announced his strong support of the bill and signaled he’ll be on hand to vote for it Tuesday. Gray missed part of the Council’s last marathon meeting on the advice of his doctors (Loose Lips only wishes he had a similar dispensation to avoid lengthy work meetings) and most Wilson Building whisperers assumed his absence contributed to Mendelson’s decision to postpone it two weeks ago.

Further filling Mendelson’s stocking, At-Large Councilmember Robert White looks ready to vote for the bill as well. He helped secure a few cosmetic changes to the legislation and has been vocally supporting it since (in a bit of a surprise move for a guy who railed against Bowser’s handling of DCHA in the mayoral primary). In fact, both Gray and White popped up in the Post’s pages over the weekend to say that it’s a real shame that Bowser’s bill would ditch the DCHA board’s most astute reformer, Bill Slover, but not enough of a shame that either wants to stand up to keep him around.

“I applaud his courage and commitment,” Gray wrote in a statement explaining why he was willing to throw the same man whose firing he criticized in the 2010 mayoral race under the bus. “My decision to support the proposed board is not about any one individual on the current board. Wholesale change in board membership is the best solution at this time.”

Mendelson is plainly hoping that other councilmembers feel the same. And he has recognized some lawmakers’ uneasiness with some of the board members Bowser hoped to install in Slover’s absence. He agreed (at White’s urging) to add seats for a public housing resident and a housing voucher holder back to the board, and tried to offer up other neutral experts who would presumably be less beholden to the mayor.

For instance, his latest proposal, unveiled late last week, ditches one Bowser-recommended housing expert with past experience in D.C. government, Jessica Haynes-Franklin, for Katrina Jones, a longtime Fannie Mae executive. Mendelson also wants to ensure that the new DCHA board only governs for two years (down from the initially proposed three) and creates a plan for a successor board within 18 months. Other measures to amplify the voices of DCHA residents—explicitly requiring the board to consider resident feedback in hiring a new executive director, for instance—are surely also meant to win over skeptics.

But these are fundamentally changes around the margins. Scrapping the agency’s current board may make Bowser happy (and answer some of the critiques raised in the federal report that kicked up this current round of reform), but there are deeper-seated issues at DCHA to confront. Executive Director Brenda Donald, not the board, directs the agency’s day-to-day operations, yet Bowser has chosen to support her to the hilt and blow up the board. The board as currently configured only reviews major contracts and approves limited policy changes involving redevelopments or housing vouchers. The new board will be empowered to review DCHA’s progress in addressing the issues raised in the HUD report, but will it have the muscle to force change within the agency’s calcified structures?

“There is no credible argument that only the adoption of this emergency bill in late December 2022 will forestall HUD returning to receivership,” the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers, which appointed Slover to the board, wrote in a statement. LL notes that White, in particular, has raised the specter of receivership (essentially, a HUD takeover of DCHA) as a reason why the Council needs to pass something, anything, to demonstrate progress to the feds.

The Council will take up plenty of other business Tuesday, considering this is its last shot to pass legislation before the process resets for all pending bills. LL is especially watching items that would reform D.C.’s crime lab, change how school budgets are managed, make Metrobus ridership free, and eliminate some background check requirements for teachers. But it’s hard to argue that any of those bills will be as controversial as the one to make changes at D.C.’s biggest landlord (or slumlord, as Racine has argued).

And there’s every reason to believe this DCHA debate could be as portentous for the new Council year as Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Future: A win here for Bowser’s critics could give them a boost at more extensive reform efforts in 2023. A Mendelson victory probably saps them of momentum before they even get started.

Read more: Washingtoncitypaper