The battle between D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At-large) and the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) reached new heights Thursday when White revealed whistleblower complaints made against the agency that have since been referred to the D.C. Office of the Inspector General.
White, chairman of the D.C. Council Committee on Housing, said an ongoing investigation centers on allegations that a DCHA employee secured housing vouchers that unqualified friends and family used to move into Rise at Temple Courts in Northwest.
Other cases involve an alleged conspiracy to steer voucher holders toward a particular building and prevent competitive contracts for a project. White said DCHA even fired an employee for refusing to take part in some of these schemes. He and the Stabilization and Reform Board, also known as the STAR Board, received reports about the complaints earlier this month.
These allegations follow what White described as DCHA’s lack of cooperation with the D.C. Council Committee on Housing in the oversight process. He mentioned soon-to-come legislation designed to boost transparency within DCHA, though he declined to speak on the specifics.
“When I see patterns of wrongdoing that require proactivity, we need to deal with it to change the culture and expectations,” White said. “There’s no path forward without instilling trust in the agency. It makes me so angry that people paired with taxpayer money have acted in self-interest. To the District residents who deserve DCHA to be high functioning, I see what you’re dealing with.”
DCHA Executive Director Brenda Donald Responds
Last year, DCHA’s compliance office found that the agency awarded nearly $1 million in illegally sourced contracts to a software company. That investigation followed the release of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report that revealed a systemic failure to maintain suitable housing for low-income residents.
The STAR Board, installed via D.C. Council legislation last year, will soon approve a set of policy changes that the HUD recommended in its report last year. The policy changes serve as the starting point in strengthening processes for DCHA voucher participants and ensuring that public housing units are habitable.
On April 10, DCHA executive director Brenda Donald is scheduled to testify before the D.C. Council Committee on Housing where she’s expected to speak, not only about the progress made in relieving the backlog in affordable housing assignments, but steps her agency is taking to curb illegal activity.
On Thursday, immediately following White’s press conference on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest, Donald countered the notion that DCHA hadn’t been transparent in its dealings.
With STAR Board Chair Raymond Skinner and Commissioner Rosa Burbridge standing next to her, Donald said DCHA was on track to inspect its entire affordable housing portfolio by June. Other gains she mentioned were the rehabilitation of 500 units within the last year and what she described as the net gain in public housing not seen in several years.
In regard to the whistleblower allegations, Donald said such incidents don’t reflect on DCHA’s ability to serve District residents.
“We take all allegations seriously. We’ve taken actions to refer to the inspector general,” Donald said. “We have a zero tolerance policy for fraud. This is not widespread corruption, just isolated incidents. We have employees who work hard and [there are] one or two bad apples. These… incidents stand on their own [and] it’s wrong and unfair [to judge] any [other] employees.”
Elissa Silverman Points Out a Pattern
For some people, including former D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman, recent revelations of malfeasance within DCHA count as part of a neverending story where working-class Washingtonians become further marginalized.
Toward the end of last year, Silverman, then an at-large D.C. council member, expressed her opposition to the formation of the STAR Board. She cited D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to remove Bill Slover and other DCHA commission board members who had been vocal DCHA critics.
Shortly before joining Council members Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) in voting against the emergency legislation that would launch the STAR Board, Silverman demanded that the D.C. Council took greater and more permanent steps to guarantee accountability within DCHA.
Those steps included DCHA’s establishment as a truly independent board, as outlined in legislation that Silverman and Pinto introduced weeks before the council approved STAR’s formation.
While Silverman acknowledged that Donald inherited DCHA’s systemic failings, she said that Donald couldn’t escape responsibility for the recently alleged voucher fraud that’s taken place with her sitting at the helm.
Additionally, Silverman took issue with Skinner supporting Donald when, in his capacity as chair of the STAR Board, he’s supposed to perform independent oversight of DCHA.
That, for Silverman, further affirmed her stance about the STAR Board serving the mayor’s interests and not that of D.C. residents. That’s why in her capacity as a D.C. resident, Silverman continues to recommend that the D.C. Council takes DCHA from under the purview of the mayor and requires it to report to the D.C. Council as an independent agency.
“Thousands of people depend on DCHA to get and maintain a safe place to live and call home. This is not some bureaucratic kerfuffle,” Silverman said. “People’s lives are impacted here. There’s an abuse of power in the voucher program and people were denied vouchers or still had to keep waiting. There was real-life human impact. Now that I’m off of the council, I’m tired of reading about District dysfunction without a solution.”