Chief of Housing Resigns, Criticizes Fenty's Strategy

Leslie A. Steen's post was created by Mayor Fenty shortly after he took office last year.
Leslie A. Steen's post was created by Mayor Fenty shortly after he took office last year. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Sylvia Moreno and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 8, 2008

The District's housing chief has resigned one year into her job, saying the Fenty administration has sidelined her role and failed so far to focus on a long-term affordable housing strategy.

In a Feb. 29 resignation letter, Leslie A. Steen said the administration was "not taking a strategic approach" to the creation of affordable housing and mixed-income, diverse neighborhoods across the city. Steen, referring to her boss, Neil O. Albert, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said he was instead "focused on the achievement of specific projects." She also wrote that Albert had maintained direct control of the city's various housing agencies, rarely involving her and "leaving this position marginalized with no authority to assure change."

Steen, 59, who earned $143,000 as housing chief, said her last workday would be Friday. Steen's criticism echoes the complaints of two other aides to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) who resigned after saying the mayor was more interested in earning political points than developing strategies for reform. Merritt Drucker, former director of constituent services, left last spring. Neil Richardson, former deputy chief of staff, quit in January. Drucker and Richardson both said they had grown disenchanted with Fenty's governing style.

"There are more than 14,000 units of affordable housing in the District's citywide pipeline and we are extremely focused on making sure it is delivered. Ms. Steen has decided to move on to other opportunities and we wish her well," Sean Madigan, Albert's spokesman, said in a statement.

The housing chief position, created by Fenty shortly after he took office last year, was one of several recommendations made in 2006 by a 25-member housing task force set up by the D.C. Council.

David F. Garrison, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who helped compile the study with his boss, Alice M. Rivlin, said yesterday the task force believed that the city's housing strategy was divided across too many agencies. Putting a single person in charge of creating a unified strategy made more sense, Garrison said.

Garrison said, however, that Fenty and Albert appeared more comfortable in talking directly to the agency directors.

"Their management emphasis is more . . . letting the agencies take full responsibility of what they're supposed to do, giving agency heads lead responsibility and expecting them to coordinate with colleagues. That can work, but it's very hard to do."

Steen, also a member of the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force, which recommended the appointment of a city housing chief, would not elaborate on her letter other than to say, "I need to move on."

A fellow member of the housing task force, Robert H. Pohlman, said he could understand Steen's frustration, given what the task force envisioned in a city housing chief.

"This person was to be a cabinet-level position and it's difficult probably to do coordination [as housing chief] without having supervisory responsibility for agencies that you're supposed to coordinate," said Pohlman, the executive director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development.

Pohlman said the task force recommended establishing 55,000 affordable housing units over the next 15 years, with 19,000 for low- and moderate-income families. The task force also recommends preserving 30,000 existing affordable homes and providing rent vouchers for 15,000 other units. He said a housing chief was to devise a strategy for the various city housing agencies to meet those goals and to help the administration make yearly progress. "I don't know of any plan per se to achieve that," Pohlman said.

An affordable-housing advocate who had frequent contact with Albert and Steen said he was surprised at Steen's resignation. "In meetings I've attended with her, the deputy and the mayor, she's always seemed very on page and supportive of what is going on," the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, co-chairman of the Washington Interfaith Network, said of Steen. "I was surprised by the tone and tenor of that letter."

D.C. Council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), head of the Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs, said he understood Steen's frustration. "When she was appointed, they never made clear what kind of power she would have," Barry said.

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