Polly Donaldson and then-Mayor Vince Gray encourage a formerly homeless woman to share her story last April.
Of all the crises facing the incoming administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser this year, the direst was homelessness. The spike in family homelessness that took the city by surprise in the winter of 2013-2014 grew even worse this past winter, spurred largely by the vanishing supply of affordable housing in the District. Bowser has won early praise from housing and homeless advocates for her appointment of seasoned deputies to lead the relevant city agencies. Laura Zeilinger, now in charge of the Department of Human Services, was formerly executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. And Polly Donaldson, tapped to head the Department of Housing and Community Development, most recently led the nonprofit Transitional Housing Corporation, which provides housing and services to hundreds of homeless families each year.
DHCD isn't directly responsible for serving homeless residents. But with its affordable-housing duties and Donaldson's homeless-services background, the agency is clearly orienting itself toward tackling the homeless crisis. Two months after she was confirmed as DHCD director by the D.C. Council, I sat down with Donaldson to discuss her strategies for improving D.C.'s housing landscape. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
You’ve made a big deal of the $100 million that the mayor allocated in her budget proposal for the Housing Production Trust Fund [which funds the creation and preservation of affordable housing]. What do expect that $100 million to accomplish?
I think that’s going to enable us to do both production—meeting the production goals that are outlined in the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force work, which we’re probably going to actually up, because I think the investments in the last few years have helped us; we’ve got 3,400 units in the pipeline right now—and preservation. We need to have a specific target on preservation and the ability to move swiftly and nimbly to meet upcoming preservation issues. Not just doing it when crisis hits, but in a proactive way two or three years out.
Most of the money from the Trust Fund goes to creating and preserving housing for people making under half of area median income. But because those apartments are more expensive to subsidize, most of the units being created through the Trust Fund are actually for people who aren't very poor, those making more than half of AMI.
Right, only a portion of them are at the 30 percent [AMI level]. But what I’m saying is that without the Trust Fund, they wouldn’t be produced at all. And so the more we put in, the more we’ll be able to reach the extremely low-income and very low-income. And that will dovetail with other parts of our public policy. Our resource deceisions have to follow public policy, and they will under this administration.
Read more With Crises Looming, New Housing Chief Lays Out Her Strategy