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Bowser moves to dissolve, reconfigure D.C. Housing Authority board

The legislation could give Mayor Muriel E. Bowser more control over governance of the embattled agency as its leaders work to comply with federal standards

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser holds a news conference to discuss her plans for moving forward after winning a third term last month. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is standing by the director of the city’s embattled housing authority but wants to dissolve the agency’s governing board amid federal findings of inadequate management and poor oversight.

Bowser (D) on Thursday proposed legislation alongside Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) to reduce the board’s membership from 13 to 7, all of whom would be appointed by the mayor. The new structure would be in place for three years, Bowser estimated, until a permanent governance structure is created.

The D.C. Council is likely to vote on the measure Tuesday, Mendelson said.

The move could position Bowser to have greater control over the agency, which is not a part of her administration. She previously has downplayed her influence over the authority’s governance but has become more overtly involved after a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development review found the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) failed to provide “decent, safe, and sanitary” housing for its residents, in violation of federal requirements.

“We see this as a temporary board that is meant to focus on the deficiencies outlined in the HUD report,” Bowser said during an interview. “As well as laying out a blueprint for how to advance the authority and its properties for housing for D.C. residents.”

Two current DCHA board members, Melissa Lee and Raymond A. Skinner, are included in Bowser’s proposal. Skinner would be the new board’s chairman. The five remaining posts would include a tenant member, who serves as president of the authority’s citywide DCHA advisory board, and the director of the D.C. Office of Budget and Performance Management. The city’s chief financial officer would serve as an ex officio, nonvoting member.

This week, agency director Brenda Donald announced a turnaround team of consultants hired by Bowser’s administration will help the authority resolve the deficiencies identified in a HUD report issued Sept. 30.

Mendelson and council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who chairs the legislative body’s housing committee, accompanied Bowser during an interview Thursday to express their support for overhauling the board. Mendelson noted the HUD report laid blame on the agency, not the council or mayor. “But the reality is that everybody is looking at the council and the mayor, like what are we doing,” he said. “So this is what we’re doing … we’re saying we’re going to bring in a control board, basically.”

The proposal drew immediate fire from people who feel the board needs more independence from the Bowser administration, not less.

Under the current board setup, Bowser appoints, with confirmation by the D.C. Council, six members of the board and selects the chair. The commissioners also include the deputy mayor for planning and economic development — now her chief of staff John Falcicchio — giving Bowser’s selections majority control of the board and who it hires as director.

Among those who voiced opposition to the proposal Thursday was Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), a member of the housing committee. “What this does is use the window dressing of ‘stabilization and reform’ to consolidate the mayor’s power and make this critical affordable housing agency an appendage of the administration and its economic development needs,” Silverman said in a statement. She said she plans to introduce a bill “that really does address the systemic problems with the authority.”

Silverman said the mayor’s proposal removes the current board members “who have been the most reform-minded.” One of those is Bill Slover, a development consultant with long experience in real estate.

Slover, the board’s longest-serving member and among its most vocal, was the only board member to consistently ask Donald questions about DCHA’s historically high vacancy rate in public housing, long before it was flagged as a major issue in the HUD report. Slover has said the agency needs a drastic change in leadership, including the board and director, but one that puts less control in the hands of the mayor.

“It’s really disappointing that the mayor’s approach to reforming the housing authority is to remove those of us who have continuously pointed out the deficiencies of the agency,” Slover said Thursday.

In a news conference after the report was issued, Bowser disavowed control of the agency, noting the city’s mayor oversaw the agency until the 1990s when, as a reform measure, it was put under control of a board. “When people want the mayor to be in control of something and be accountable, then there are ways that we can do that,” she said.

The recent HUD report said some existing board members believe Bowser’s appointees “vote as a group without individual review of the action requested.”

Donald disputed the assertion to members of the D.C. Council’s housing committee Wednesday. “We have some board members who vote no on everything, too,” she said. “And then we have some who generally support the staff recommendations. And it’s not necessarily all of the mayoral appointees.”

Donald served as director of the city’s Child and Family Services Agency under Bowser, who credits her with turning the agency around. But when DCHA’s board made Donald director last year without a national search, and with mayoral appointees voting as a bloc, some housing advocates questioned her lack of experience managing public housing or real estate. HUD evaluators recommended that Donald and the board receive training in critical housing authority functions, including procurement, HUD policies and financial management.

Donald has said she inherited a mess from the previous DCHA administration and that she and her team are working to fix it. Among the items on her list: remove D.C. from its status as worst in the nation for large cities when it comes to the vacancy rate in public housing units. She pledged in March to raise the 79 percent occupancy rate by 10 percentage points by Sept. 30. It has fallen below 74 percent.

Donald and non-mayoral-appointee board members have clashed in public meetings during her tenure. Recently, her relationship with the board and the agency’s chief auditor fractured over a review by the agency’s Office of Audit and Compliance that criticized the Donald administration’s handling of an emergency contract and said Donald’s staff attempted to obstruct the review.

“It would be great to have a supportive Board focused on the critical work my team and I are doing,” Donald told The Washington Post in an email afterward.

The mayor, asked Thursday about a report on the website District Dig that she encouraged Donald to stay on recently as she considered resigning, said she told Donald the agency needed her leadership.

“She’s a turnaround agent. She’s worked at various levels of this government and other governments. She’s a D.C. native, and she cares deeply about what happens to D.C.’s most vulnerable people,” Bowser said. “And I asked her to remember that, and to let us let the authority keep its commitments to HUD.”

Bowser said under her proposal, whether Donald stays on would be up to her and the new board.

Mendelson said he did not expect Donald to stay on after her current two-year contract ends next year. “It’s understood that [the] Public Housing Authority is not working very well, the challenge for us is to turn the Authority around and do it in an orderly fashion while we get a new Executive Director next year,” Mendelson said in a statement. “This legislation helps to stabilize the Authority and ensure that we don’t see more turnover at the top while working this out.”

Donald did not return an email Thursday seeking comment.