- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mayor Adrian Fenty’s attempts to improve the living conditions of some tenants is a work in progress. On one hand, it is evolving in step with the fiscal reality of the city. On the other, it is government overreach. The mayor cannot have it both ways.

If what a former tenant organizer says is true, the mayor is formulating good public policy. Andrew Willis Garces writes this week on dcwatch.org that the Fenty administration is scaling back government funding for tenant education and advocacy organizations - “decreasing the amount of tenant purchase funding available to low-income tenant associations” - and that the Department of Housing and Community Development is refusing “to renew contracts with the two largest tenant education service agencies.”

Meanwhile, Marian Siegel, executive director for Housing Counseling Services Inc. (one of the two largest service agencies Mr. Garces was talking about), says she has received assurances from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development that it will continue to support her organization’s tenant anti-displacement program through the end of this year. The program uses grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to educate tenants of their rights and to help tenants buy the property from landlords.

But don’t be fooled. Two years ago, HUD provided $2.25 million in block grants to low- and moderate-income renters to purchase buildings, $401,200 for education and counseling services, another $5,253,234 for counseling and outreach and $2,134,520 for operational costs to administer them. That totaled more than $10 million in 2006, and the funding has increased slightly in the past two years.

The fiscal 2009 budget cut $2.4 billion in Section 8 rent subsidies, meaning that 500,000 vouchers would have to be cut nationally. That money is for people already receiving direct public assistance, so it isn’t hard to imagine what’s in store.

Now, as we wrote on Aug. 22, the mayor is ridding the bureaucracy of housing inspectors. City authorities said these inspectors are needed for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to inspect, enforce and regulate housing, construction and related industries. The mayor’s policy calls for inspectors to pre-emptively enter rental properties and demand improvements from the landlord. If the landlord refuses to pay and/or make the improvements, the city will pay. And when the city pays, taxpayers pay.

The harsh reality is that the city would have to pick up a good chunk, if not all, of the more than $10 million to keep the tenant programs funded. The city would also have to pay the cost of hiring additional and better-skilled inspectors. It also would have to hire workers to monitor and carryout enforcement and to oversee work while it’s being done and once it’s completed. Here is where overreach is most acute.

Again, seeing to it that D.C. residents live and work in safe environments is good public policy. But the government creates conflicts of undeniable interest when it plays the roles of landlord and tenant. Plus, the mayor’s plan could plunge the city into a fiscal hole filled with red ink and no accountability. The mayor needs to rethink anew.

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