D.C. Council Approves Emergency Bill To Replace Housing Authority Board

By Martin Austermuhle

The D.C. Council on Tuesday passed emergency legislation dissolving the D.C. Housing Authority’s 13-person board and replacing it with a nine-person alternative that will remain in place for two years to help right the troubled agency. The DCHA has faced increasing criticism and scrutiny since a scathing federal audit in October identified dozens of deficiencies in how it manages and maintains thousands of units of public housing across the city.

Lawmakers approved the bill on a 9-4 vote during the council’s last legislative session of the year, when they also gave the final go-ahead to bills that will make Metrobus free of charge within the city starting as soon as next July; increase food benefits for low-income residents; give domestic workers additional employment rights; reform the way that the city funds its public schools; expand the city’s medical marijuana program; and improve pedestrian and cyclist safety around schools.

The bill to create a new “stabilization and reform” board at the Housing Authority was unveiled earlier this month by Mayor Muriel Bowser, who argued that the existing board was dysfunctional and a new one was needed to sustain reforms being pushed by the agency’s executive director Brenda Donald, who took over the job in August 2021. But critics, including dozens of organizations that offer services to low-income residents, their appointed member of the board, as well as Attorney General Karl Racine derided the legislation as a “power grab” that wouldn’t address the deep-seated problems at the Housing Authority.

Uneasiness amongst lawmakers with Bowser’s initial version of the bill derailed a planned vote two weeks ago, prompting Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmember Robert White (D-At Large) to propose changes that included having nine members on the new board (instead of seven as Bowser proposed), putting a public housing resident on the new board (the existing board has three, Bowser proposed eliminating all of them), and adding requirements that the new board consistently report back to the council on reforms being made.

During an hour-long debate on Tuesday afternoon, various lawmakers said the October audit from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the deficiencies it uncovered required immediate action from the council.

“It has to be done. We can’t leave it as it is,” said Councilmember Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who chairs the council’s housing committee, about the Housing Authority’s existing board.

Councilmember White said, “For me the north star is, what is going to make public housing better? Can the current board make public housing better? The answer is no, because if they could they would have done so already. Can the new board? The answer is yes.”

“The bill represents the tightest leash we’ve had on the authority. It also can’t be a one-and-done action from the council,” said Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1).

That latter sentiment, though, was what fueled opposition to the emergency bill from some lawmakers, including Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). Holding up a copy of a 1994 article from The Washington Post detailing problems at the Housing Authority, Silverman said the council had historically failed to step up and reform the agency in a comprehensive manner — and had thus doomed it to repeated failures.

“We have known about the deplorable housing conditions and this dysfunction for decades. For decades, the alarm has been on. But we tune it out, except when the press amplifies it. And then we do the same thing again and again. We make some quick fixes,” she said. “Let’s not cross our fingers and hope it will make the changes we need this time.”

Silverman and Councilmember Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) urged their colleagues to reject Bowser’s emergency bill and instead to focus early next year on a comprehensive reform bill they introduced earlier this month. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) agreed, criticizing the speed with which Bowser’s bill had moved from draft to final vote. “The process has done nothing but undermine public trust. Process matters. It matters to public trust, it matters to outcomes,” she said.

Mendelson, though, pushed back on waiting until next year to take up Silverman and Pinto’s alternative proposal, arguing instead that the council could do both. “There’s some urgency. There’s something we can do now and something that will take longer, and that is look comprehensively at the agency. The latter route ignores that the current board is not working well,” he said.

In a statement, Sheila Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Housing Authority, welcomed the passage of the emergency legislation.

“The D.C. Housing Authority thanks Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council of the District of Columbia for their unwavering commitment, support and confidence in us as we work diligently to rebuild the agency. The passing vote to implement a restructured Board of Commissioners allows us to collaboratively govern and stabilize the agency in a renewed commitment to the residents we serve. We have work to do and look forward to doing it!” she wrote in an email.

The pressure will continue on the Housing Authority’s leaders in months to come, however. They are required to report back to HUD by the end of March 2023 on changes they have implemented to address the deficiencies highlighted in the October audit.

Read more: DCIST