The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Housing Authority’s leadership is failing, HUD report says

The Garfield Terrace housing complex. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
7 min

Inadequate management, poor oversight and faulty governance drove the D.C. Housing Authority’s failure to provide “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing for its residents in violation of federal requirements, HUD investigators have concluded.

A damning, 72-page report the agency authored portrays a housing authority in disarray and at risk of defaulting on its agreement with the federal government. Auditors catalogued 82 findings of deficiencies that DCHA must make substantial progress on within three months or risk escalating actions by HUD, which delivered its findings to DCHA in recent days.

The sweeping findings detailed in the report, a copy of which was reviewed by The Washington Post, reveal dangerous conditions at properties that form one of the last lines of defense for District residents who cannot afford homes, including violence, lead-paint hazards, out-of-code plumbing, water damage and mold. A DCHA maintenance foreman told HUD evaluators that emergency work orders are not addressed at night due to safety concerns. Prospective tenants turn down units for fear of crime, the report states.

HUD noted that DCHA’s occupancy rate is the lowest of any large public housing authority in the nation, with one in four of its roughly 8,000 physical units vacant. The vacancies result in fewer people housed and millions of dollars every year in forgone income, the report said. It attributed the issue to management failure and said the vacancies have accelerated the agency’s steadily deteriorating financial condition.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) appoints seven of 13 members on the DCHA board and selects the chair. The commissioners include the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, now John Falcicchio, who serves as an ex officio member, giving Bowser’s appointees majority control.

Some board members believe Bowser-appointed members “vote as a group without individual review of the action requested,” the report says, and don’t feel they receive sufficient information to make decisions at meetings.

Falcicchio on Friday referred specific questions about the report to an agency spokesperson and said the board is to be briefed on it Wednesday. LaToya Foster, a spokesperson for Bowser, said the mayor would await DCHA’s official response to HUD before commenting.

The housing authority has 60 days — until Nov. 30 — to respond to the findings and recommendations. The housing authority’s director, Brenda Donald said she and her staff received the report this week and are “in the process of putting together our responses.”

HUD spokesperson Shantae Goodloe said Friday that the federal agency would not speculate on any future consequences for DCHA.

“The goal of any monitoring review is to provide the findings, provide technical assistance to the Public Housing Authority (PHA) as needed, and for the PHA to resolve the findings timely,” Goodloe said in an email.

Board member Bill Slover, whose seat is selected by the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers, has long said HUD needs to place the agency under its direct control, or that of an appointed receiver, to turn it around.

“The HUD report makes it clear that DCHA needs to reclaim its independence through wholesale change in leadership at both the executive and board level," Slover said Friday. “Only by doing this will the agency be able to focus on its core mission of serving its residents first, something this agency has long neglected to do.”

The report recommends that Donald, whom the board brought on last year without a national search, receive training in critical housing authority functions, including “the overall role of the Executive Director and the Board,” procurement, HUD policies, and financial management. Donald “has no experience in property development, property management or managing federal housing programs,” evaluators noted.

“My goal, my mandate, was to rebuild the public trust and to stabilize the organization,” Donald said Friday. “But clearly I inherited an organization that was in disarray. It didn’t get there overnight, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that it would be fixed overnight, even though we’ve had some major accomplishments in this past year.”

Donald previously served as director of the city’s Child and Family Services Agency and was credited with making improvements there. She said Friday that she’s never pretended to have a public housing background. “I am certainly amenable to and will take the specific training that they recommend, which is also the specific training they recommend for my board,” she said.

DCHA has 8,084 traditional public housing units. The report notes occupancy has been “on a continual decline” in recent years. In June, 1,628 units were vacant, the report says. A HUD dashboard online shows that number has climbed in recent months to 1,973, bringing the occupancy rate below 74 percent.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is that DCHA lacks an accurate system of keeping track of vacant units. Nor does it have adequate procedures for turning around empty units and selecting new tenants. The agency’s property management staff members “lack knowledge of unit turnaround procedures and could not provide the status of vacant units,” the report said.

The report notes that DCHA’s waiting list for public housing and vouchers was frozen in 2013. The agency “was unable to provide documentation of the number of persons on its Public Housing waiting list,” has not updated the list in ten years, and “could not provide the method it used to remove families from” it, the report said.

The report includes photos of a vacant unit encountered by HUD during its assessment. It had black mold and green moss growing inside it due to “an active leak” that had gone unrepaired, the report said. “DCHA must inspect each unit in every building that contains at least one occupied dwelling unit and create a list of mold units and units with active leaks.”

Illustrating that DCHA is not adequately addressing crimes on its properties, the report said housing authorities sent police escorts with a HUD assessor to “make sure nothing happened” during an inspection. “Multiple housing managers indicated some applicants turn down units in their developments due to high crime,” the report said. “Additionally, one maintenance foreman informed HUD that emergency work orders are not addressed, at night, due to safety concerns.”

The report also took aim at the housing authority’s procurement systems, saying that “systemic problems exist” because of “lack of appropriate oversight by the executive leadership and the Board.” It recommended DCHA “hire an integrity monitoring firm to review all existing contracts to determine if they are in compliance with its procurement policy and HUD requirements.”

D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who chairs the legislative body’s housing committee, said in an interview Friday that she’d not yet read the report in full. But she said she was “not totally surprised” at its contents.

“I’m glad HUD is being upfront with us,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it to say we were operating on all burners … But I am expecting that we will grow from this and continue to do everything we can to make the properties quality living.”

Bonds said her history with Donald “has been one where she has been able to problem-solve, embrace an issue and actually turn around agencies.”

In the 1990s, the agency was deemed the poorest-performing housing authority in the nation by HUD. Advocates for the homeless sued the District on behalf of families then on the waiting list. Because of the lawsuit, a D.C. Superior Court judge removed the agency from the city government’s control and turned it over to a receiver.

The receiver, David I. Gilmore, spent five years overseeing a dramatic turnaround.