- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2000

Here's the problem: In the District, government dysfunction is the standard. Often residents, civic activists and the media resist attempts to correct decades-old problems, castigating those who wish to raise the bar, right past wrongs, improve methodologies and install new systems.

Consider Mayor Anthony William's crackdown on slum landlords. Once upon a time, under both "Poor People's Champion" Mayor Marion Barry and Washington native Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) sent inspectors into apartment buildings, cited owners for violations, demanded the problems be abated and went their way. Nothing happened. Scofflaws continued collecting their rents as they cruised to their palatial homes in Maryland and Virginia.

"This whole inspection thing was just a charade," says D.C. Council member Jim Graham. "It was well-executed, but it was a joke."

Residents mostly poor, illiterate, or illegal immigrants were subjected to subhuman conditions, living in apartments where the ceilings were ready to collapse. Windows had football-sized holes, paint peeled off walls, dripping faucets added new meaning to the phrase Chinese water torture, appliances worked intermittently, backed up toilets created cesspools of human waste, and rodents made the places their private preserves. Complaining residents endangered their housing status; they bore horrendous conditions in silence.

Now, the Williams administration, supported by Mr. Graham, is squeezing slumlords. It started when DCRA director Lloyd Jordan went to his supervisor Eric Price, deputy mayor for economic development, and announced there were 50 buildings in such horrible condition they should be condemned. "If we do that, how do we deal with the families?" wondered Mr. Price and Mr. Jordan. Mr. Price decided on a SWAT team approach, calling in the deputy mayor for children, youth and families, the city's Housing Finance Agency, the Department of Housing and Community Development, and Corporation Counsel Robert Rigsby.

Working under Mr. Price's direction, administration officials focused on 13 properties located in Columbia Heights with 252 units and 400 occupants. The buildings were declared unsafe for human habitation and notices of intent to close them were plastered on the doors. Then, the city arrested four property owners Andrew J. Serafin of Great Falls, Kenneth Welch of Montgomery County, his son Patrick Welch and Randy McRae, a ne'r-do-well Prince George's Country businessman who ran for county executive (and PG County Executive Wayne Curry thinks he has a beef). The owners were charged with criminal violations of the District's housing laws.

"We needed to get their attention real quick," says Mr. Rigsby, taking it personally that some of these slumlords were lawyers. Those arrests have pressured other landlords to begin bringing their buildings up to standard.

"We can't continue business as usual," says Mr. Price. There is money in the fiscal year 2001 budget for more housing inspectors, though not nearly enough to guarantee the city won't return to its neglectful ways.

Instead of greeting these actions with shouts of "Hallelujah," tenants are protesting, arguing that the city should ensure they aren't displaced. They say even if relocation assistance in the form of federal housing vouchers and $1,000 in cash is provided, tenants who are illegal immigrants can't avail themselves of these opportunities. Besides, they like their Columbia Heights community and don't want to go elsewhere in the city.

Last week the council, spurred by Mr. Graham, approved legislation that protects tenants rights for two years, making it possible to return to their buildings at the same rental rate, once repairs are made. Current laws give tenants the first right to purchase if a landlord decides to sell his or her property. (There is nothing to prohibit any tenant organization from making an offer or applying for loans and grants from the city to bring the property up to code). This week two property owners have been given 30-day extensions. Next week tenants meet with the mayor.

In the past, heated criticism has cooled Mr. Williams' resolve. Consider the plan for an all-appointed school board or the idea of relocating the University of the District of Columbia to an unidentified site east of the Anacostia River as examples of the administration's famous retreats. The push to get building owners to abide by city laws shouldn't be added to this list.

Everyone is concerned about the plight of tenants. Yet the District government can't be expected to violate federal immigration laws. Nor should it use the scarce resources of legal taxpaying citizens to aid those who have entered the country through the back door. The city can facilitate collaboration between non-governmental and faith-based organizations to provide aid to affected tenants. But it cannot become a real estate agent, and given all its responsibilities, it can't get in the apartment renovation business.

The government's job is to ensure that the city maintains a decent housing stock that does not threaten the health or safety of any citizen. It must enforce its laws, using every tool in its arsenal. This is what the Williams administration, and the council, are doing; they are to be commended not castigated.

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