But St. Jean-Clarke’s dismissal has prompted questions from housing advocates and a member of the D.C. Council, who are asking about the timing of her removal while three other board members with expired terms remain on the board.
D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) wrote to the mayor’s office earlier this month seeking an explanation, saying she had “become more and more troubled about decisions made by those in charge of DCHA.”
The questions come at a rocky time for DCHA. The agency is also facing a wrongful termination lawsuit from a former high-ranking employee and recently settled another suit to address violence at its properties — all while advocates are asking whether its public housing redevelopment plans help low-income residents with the greatest needs.
In 2016, St. Jean-Clarke bought a house in Ward 8 through the housing authority and became a DCHA commissioner in 2018, helping families in public housing move toward homeownership, as she had done. In written testimony after St. Jean-Clarke was nominated by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) said St. Jean-Clarke, 38, “will be able to further DCHA’s mission and see that others like her will be able to benefit.”
When the DCHA’s former general counsel sued the agency last month, alleging she was fired for asking whether KN95 masks the agency bought for coronavirus protection were approved by federal regulators, St. Jean-Clarke was among a group of board members who called for an emergency meeting. She said she wanted to learn more about the litigation and the agency’s pandemic response plan.
Three days later, she learned she was no longer a DCHA commissioner.
Officials from the mayor’s office said St. Jean-Clarke’s term was up — and she was no longer eligible to serve, as her seat was reserved for someone receiving a housing subsidy she no longer needed. The emergency meeting was held four days later, Aug. 25, without her.
The terms of three other commissioners who still sit on the agency’s 11-member board have also expired, and St. Jean-Clarke’s leap to homeownership — eliminating her need for a housing voucher — was widely known. It felt like retaliation, she said.
“Everybody knew when I got on the board — they knew I was a homeowner,” she said. “I was working. I was shocked. I loved what I do. I loved what I did.”
DCHA referred questions about St. Jean-Clarke’s dismissal to Bowser’s office. The mayor’s office noted her term had expired but did not respond to requests for comment about the timing of her removal or the expired terms of other commissioners who remain on the board.
In the final minutes of a Sept. 9 DCHA board meeting, Chairman Neil Albert also referred fellow commissioners with questions about St. Jean-Clarke’s dismissal to Bowser’s office.
“Commissioner St. Jean, like many of us on this board, serves at the pleasure of the mayor,” Albert said. “The mayor exercised the termination.”
“I think one of the questions a lot of us want to know is: Why’s the seat empty?” Commissioner Bill Slover said. “Why was it vacated before there was a replacement?”
“I will just repeat what I said earlier,” Albert replied.
In an interview, Silverman said she’s concerned about St. Jean-Clarke’s removal from the board. Her Sept. 11 letter to Steve Walker, director of the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, requested additional information about the dismissal.
“The recent and abrupt dismissal of Vice Chair Franselene St. Jean-Clarke from the Board of Commissioners took me by surprise,” Silverman wrote. “It also raises red flags for me whether the swift removal was made to silence dissenting board voices.”
Silverman said Walker didn’t respond to her inquiry. He also didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.
Silverman said St. Jean-Clarke’s presence on the board, where those in public housing have told “heartbreaking stories” about basic management issues, was important because of her experience with the agency.
“She was a housing voucher recipient. She used the voucher to purchase a house,” Silverman said. “She was a very valuable voice. She was an active voice. She was vice chair. . . . She’s not a puppet of the administration.”
St. Jean-Clarke said eight years in the U.S. Navy, including a combat tour in Afghanistan that ended in 2011, left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her father, who gave up custody of his nine children in 2010, left her with three siblings to raise along with her own infant son.
After her return from overseas, she was homeless and living in a car for months with her child near the Westfield Wheaton mall. With the help of a transitional housing program for female veterans, she got a surgical tech job at George Washington University Hospital using skills she had developed in war — and changed her life.
Her dismissal comes amid a difficult year for the housing authority.
The agency, which operates independently of the city’s government, was sued by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine in June for allegedly endangering thousands of tenants with a lack of security amid violence in public housing. The agency settled earlier this month, agreeing to spend more than $3 million on security cameras, better lighting and violence prevention programs.
The settlement was announced weeks after Chelsea J. Andrews, a former general counsel for the agency and an employee for eight years, said she was fired in May after learning DCHA “sole sourced KN95 masks without following proper procurement rules,” according to her complaint filed in D.C. Superior Court.
Andrews alleged the masks were purchased after a referral from agency executive director Tyrone Garrett’s college roommate. The masks came with a “certificate of registration” from their Chinese manufacturer, embossed with what appeared to be the U.S. Food and Drug Administration logo. However, the FDA does not issue registration certificates to companies that manufacture medical devices.
In a court motion earlier this month, the housing authority acknowledged the masks, purchased for $21,980, were not FDA-approved but said “there was no authority at any level of government that required DCHA to purchase N95 or equivalent medical respirator masks for its employees.”
DCHA officials said in a news release earlier this month that Andrews’s allegations were “without any basis,” adding that “DCHA’s only goal was to ensure that its essential workers had access to the best PPE available at the time.”
Rebecca Lindhurst, managing attorney at Bread for the City legal clinic, an affordable housing advocate, said St. Jean-Clarke’s dismissal and DCHA’s other woes are “bringing out deep problems and exposing the mismanagement.”
“It’s really disheartening to see that the housing authority, which has been a resource for so many families in the District, is in jeopardy,” she said.
A DCHA spokesperson declined to comment on questions about the litigation or the agency’s management.
St. Jean-Clarke said her push for transparency made her a target. Long before the face mask lawsuit, she questioned DCHA’s long-delayed plans to sell its North Capitol Street headquarters to a developer, worried not enough affordable housing was included in the proposal. Silverman has expressed similar concerns.
The agency has a dedicated spot for a housing voucher recipient among its leadership, but St. Jean-Clarke said the board didn’t want to hear what that person had to say.
“My attempt is not to get my position back,” she said. “It’s just about calling awareness to what’s happening . . . This was something dear to my heart.”