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Hoping for improvements, lawmakers consider restructuring D.C.’s public housing authority

Two proposals would give the District more control over the independent agency than it has now

The D.C. Housing Authority headquarters, at 1133 North Capitol St. NE (2009)
Cliff/Wikimedia Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Many of the city’s more than 8,000 public housing units have long been in serious disrepair, the consequence of decades of underinvestment and mismanagement at both the federal and local levels. But the situation appears to be reaching a critical point. As the Washington City Paper recently reported, the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) says conditions in 2,500 units it owns and manages are “extremely urgent,” seeing dated building systems, pests, and mold.

Some city lawmakers are now seeking to fix these conditions and prevent them in the future by reshaping how DCHA, which has been an independent agency for years, is governed. Two bills floated at a D.C. Council meeting last Tuesday would give the District more control over the housing authority—in one case, by positioning it directly under the purview of the mayor.

Pitched by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, the first bill aims to boost transparency over DCHA’s operations and budget. “The housing authority is not responsive enough to the needs of our residents and is making plans—including privatization of our public housing—that will set us back in the middle of a housing crisis,” Nadeau said in introducing her bill. Last month, the DCHA board approved a strategic plan that empowers the agency’s staff to examine possibly selling off some of its properties for redevelopment, City Paper reported.

Nadeau’s bill drew preliminary support from a majority of the 13-member Council. She said it is “imperative” that DCHA “seeks to preserve every unit of housing” set aside for families making at or below 30 percent of the area median income—currently about $35,000 a year for a four-person family—“while also looking for new ways to create them.” Housing experts consider units priced at that level deeply affordable, and the bill still must receive a hearing.

The second bill, proposed by At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, would add two Council-approved members to DCHA’s board and require that board members have “experience and competence” in at least one of the following areas: “public housing, subsidized or nonprofit housing, community-based redevelopment, philanthropy and social services, real estate finance and investment, or housing development and construction.” If the bill becomes law, the size of the board would grow to 13 seats from 11 seats as of today. Bonds, who chairs the Council’s housing committee, described the present requirements as “highly open-ended.”

Her bill also received initial support from a majority of councilmembers and still requires a public hearing to advance. In a statement on Monday, the housing authority did not express clear opposition to either piece of legislation, saying: “DCHA has identified areas in need of improvement and is vigorously working toward a strategy that will improve the quality of life for our residents. We welcome the opportunity for an open discussion with all stakeholders.”

The current governance structure and independent status of DCHA date back to the 1990s.

This post has been updated with comment from DCHA.