Paulette Matthews, vice president of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association (Courtesy photo)
Paulette Matthews, vice president of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association (Courtesy photo)

Sign up to stay connected

Get the top stories of the day around the DMV.

For more than a decade, public housing resident Paulette Matthews has made it a point to attend monthly meetings hosted by what was then known as the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) Board of Commissioners.

In 2019, Matthews moved from what used to be Barry Farm in Southeast to housing in Northwest. Long before then, Matthews, along with activists and other Barry Farm residents, challenged a redevelopment plan that would eventually displace them and scatter them throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. 

Once she settled into her new dwellings, Matthews saw problems similar to what she and other public housing residents experienced at Barry Farm, particularly building managers’ failure to address the crumbling infrastructure. Matthews recalled contractors doing patchwork repairs on floors and furnaces, rather than replacing them. 

Though she would eventually get her problems addressed, Matthews said it took a lot of persistence. 

In the aftermath of the dismantling of the Board of Commissioners last year, Matthews continued to maintain a presence at meetings that have since been conducted by the Stabilization and Reform Board, also known as the STAR Board. She along with other public housing residents weigh in on issues of concern and their comments become part of the public record. 

Even so, Matthews said that board members’ assurances that residents’ qualms get addressed don’t inspire much confidence in her that DCHA will do its job properly, especially when it comes to low-income and middle-income residents. 

“The mayor picked and chose who she wants, but the shenanigans continue,” said Matthews, who still serves as vice president of the Barry Farm Tenants and Allies Association. “The work orders aren’t being completed. They just [put a] band-aid [on] things. I will just be persistent. I’m not settling for that craziness. I go to board meetings and they’re talking about the same things from the last meeting.” 

The STAR Board Gets to Work 

In April, the STAR Board is scheduled to approve policy changes recommended in a report the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released last year. 

DCHA Chief Operating Officer Rachel Joseph said that the policies serve as the starting point for eventually ensuring that DCHA is held accountable in strengthening business processes for voucher participants and making public housing units habitable. 

This upcoming resolution follows other moves made by the STAR Board since the new year. 

In March, the STAR Board unanimously approved a resolution to accept an additional $27 million from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development that supports the redevelopment of Barry Farm. STAR also approved a contract with Solution Guidance Corporation of Chantilly, Va., one of eight candidates for the provider of a project management information system for DCHA’s portfolio of construction and development projects. 

These developments happened around the time that D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At large), chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing, requested that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) dedicates $100 million per year toward the repair and maintenance of public housing units. 

Last year, White counted among the nine council members who approved legislation dismantling the DCHA Board of Commissioners and replacing it with the STAR Board, a temporary entity that’s providing oversight of the agency’s plan to address the findings of the HUD report. 

Before Bowser and the D.C. Council moved forward with the STAR Board’s installment, DCHA’s board of commissioners consisted of 13 members, including the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development, six members appointed by the mayor, one appointed by the D.C. Council,  and a housing advocacy representative. 

The STAR Board on the other hand consists of 11 members, all of whom have been appointed by the mayor and approved by the D.C. Council. Those members include board chair Raymond Skinner, who’s former secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. Members include Denise Blackson and Rosa Burbridge, each of whom represent public housing residents as voting and nonvoting members, respectively. 

Meanwhile, Ronnie Harris represents the voucher program. She and the aforementioned STAR board members serve alongside representatives of the District’s Office of Budget and Performance Management and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, in addition to other subject-matter experts

In the midst of the STAR Board’s work,  DCHA caught the ire of public housing residents and advocates earlier this year when DCHA Director Brenda Donald received a bonus of more than $41,000. The bonus came months after a damning internal audit of DCHA nearly caused Donald to resign.

Donald has been on record saying that she will not renew her contract with DCHA. Council member White the Informer earlier this month that installing a permanent director counts among the action steps in improving DCHA governance. 

White said a national search for a DCHA director should lead to the discovery of the “best and brightest leader” who has expertise in housing and management.

Since taking the helm of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing, White has conducted hearings and shepherded the passage of emergency legislation that requires DCHA to report certain financial and operating information, revises the training requirements for commissionaires and establishes training requirements for the executive director. The legislation also expands landlord-tenant consumer protections to DCHA. 

White said these steps go a long way in reestablishing DCHA’s rapport with the community.

“The agency can only move at the speed of trust,” White said as he touched on housing topics that he discusses with constituents. “We discuss voucher fraud and illegal procurement in public hearings. For things to keep moving in this direction, it’s going to take consistent work. I need the best and brightest to go to the DC Housing Authority — not as a sinking ship, but where they can do the best work.” 

Donald became DCHA executive director in 2021 after stints as director of D.C. Child and Family Services and deputy mayor for the Department of Health and Human Services. Despite criticism about public housing conditions in the wake of the Department of Housing and Urban Development report last year, Donald had been reported to say that DCHA housed more than 3,000 people in 18 months. 

Resident Wants More Say

For longtime public housing resident Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, Donald’s tenure represents the loss of resident empowerment in the areas of contract procurement and use of surplus funds received by each public housing community. 

In October, Vann-Ghasri, a resident of Potomac Gardens in Southeast, resigned from her role as a commissioner on the DCHA Board of Commissioners. She recalled making that move out of concern about the lack of transparency within DCHA, particularly as it relates to housing conditions and boosting resident participation in DCHA programming. 

Vann-Ghasri told the Informer that she didn’t support the dismemberment of the DCHA Board of Commissioners, as the board in that state represented an opportunity for residents to have some say so in public housing policy. 

As a DCHA commissioner of 17 years, Vann-Ghasri advocated for recreational activities and trips for public housing residents along with job training programs that allow residents to learn skills while repairing public housing. Another goal of Vann-Ghasri also centered on helping residents invest in community programs.  

Fulfilling those goals in this day and age, however, would be nearly impossible without greater synergy between residents and DCHA, Vann-Ghasri said. 

“The first thing that was taken away was the power of the residents to elect who they want on the board,” Vann-Ghasri said. “The policy will always go the mayor’s way. We’re the only housing authority in the United States that had [residents] as voting commissioners. We have programs but are they being attended by residents? These are [resources] that can be given to the unemployed and those who need a better future with training.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *