- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 1999

This summer I took my son back to school at Hampton University. We flew from California into D.C. and drove through Northern Virginia down to Hampton. Driving around the Beltway at 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon, I was surprised by the amount of traffic on the highway. Fortunately, we were headed south. The opposite direction was a parking lot from Richmond all the way back to Washington.
After dropping my son off, I planned to spend a few days at Virginia Beach. Unfortunately, Hurricane Dennis had other plans for the area, so I drove back to D.C. Remembering the traffic on the other side of the highway, I took Highway 17, the old route that used to service the area before they built the Beltway. About 50 miles outside of D.C., the traffic slowed. As I got closer, mile 49, the pleasant part of my trip was over. Gridlocked, I crawled into the city at about a mile per hour. The trip was a real eye-opener for me.
When I lived in D.C. 15 years ago, Virginia and Maryland cities were mostly quiet suburbs that surrounded the nation's capital. Now they are bustling destination points with businesses, jobs and hundreds of thousands of new residents.
While in D.C., I met with a high-ranking D.C. government official to discuss housing issues. My meeting was very disheartening. I learned that D.C.'s population had declined from 638,000 in 1980 to 523,000 in 1998. The latest census tracking shows that in the last two years, 20,000 residents left the city. This is not white flight. That happened years ago. These days the people getting out are middle-class homeowners and renters, many of them African Americans. And it is noteworthy that this is taking place while the regional economy is exploding with new businesses and jobs.
Why, I wanted to know, does the nation's capital look and feel run down, when the surrounding areas of Northern Virginia and Maryland have grown so much that their highways are almost impassable?
It did not take long to get an answer to my question. Top D.C. officials acknowledge that D.C.'s problems mushroomed in the 1980s when the District developed the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. That is the agency which administers rent control, regulates business licenses and generally controls the city's growth. Former Mayor Marion Barry decided that D.C. would fight the recession with strong regulatory practices designed to ensure "social justice." Instead of helping the city grow with new jobs and businesses and creating incentives for new housing, he decided to tax, regulate and control prices.
I know what I am talking about because I was one of those regulators. I served as executive assistant to the Rental Housing Commission and helped run the rent control program. Our regulatory approach created loyal and devoted voters who stood by the mayor and re-elected him to office. But it decimated middle-class homeowners, small property owners and businesses. They were taxed and regulated into oblivion.
Now, there are two Washingtons. The very wealthy live in Georgetown and the west end of the city. The poor and trapped live everywhere else. City services are at an all-time low. Police cars don't work. Schools are unsafe. Courts are jammed. Trash is everywhere. In fact, I hear that things became so bad that local residents cheered when Congress intervened and leveled the ultimate insult to democracy and local control by stripping the authority to run the city from local elected officials.
As the rest of the region confidently faces the millennium, D.C. is confronted with very painful choices. To reverse two decades of decline, it must create a climate friendly to business and housing that will entice business and residents back to the city. This will be tough because officials will have to reverse the programs that led to the city's decline. That requires a change in the mindset of a population that has come to view rent control as a right and expects regulation to keep prices down.
Leaders will have to turn around a city whose population has been demoralized by horrible schools, that has seen decline in virtually every kind of government service, and whose quality of life has eroded.
This, I am sad to say, is the legacy of rent control, overzealous regulatory intervention, poor schools and politicians who, despite their good intentions, made poor decisions. Social engineers (which once included me in their ranks) told D.C. residents that everything would be all right, but it didn't turn out that way. Regulation and taxation were short-term feel goods. In the long run, these practices brought the city to its knees. Anyone with half a mind knows that D.C. will rebound. The capital of the free world will not be allowed to die.
Unfortunately, the residents of the city will continue to suffer until things are turned around and made better. Poor people also face the possibility that when the city is righted, the benefits will go to new arrivals and not to those who suffered through failed political experimentation and social tinkering.
What an insult that would add to the injury that has been inflicted for far too many years.

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