Friday, February 1, 2002

When we moved here in 1956, planners were experimenting with something called urban renewal. Grappling with housing, transportation and race-based politics, they were refashioning what has, at last, become a city of global import. But, while those planners could easily foresee most of the challenges that lie ahead for this diamond in the rough, their economic forecasts failed to predict that, in one generation, this city of magnificent intentions would take an economic and political nose-dive to rise too fast become a place to call home and all in one generation.
With the exception of one ward of its eight wards the rock-steady Ward 3, situated west of Rock Creek Park Washington’s dramatic renaissance is taking place everywhere. Where garden-style and dilapidated government-owned slums once concentrated the poor in Wards 7 and 8, single-family housing has taken their place. Where residents once cried out for any supermarket, taxpayers are now debating which chains, and where D.C. government once pocketed itself in Ward 2, planners are now, to paraphrase Mayor Tony Williams, thinking out of the box and creating mini-government service centers in Georgetown, Penn-Branch, and other long-established neighborhoods.
It is a winning formula that though not unexpectedly has more than a few blocs on edge. Homeowners in Far Northeast, for one, have a gripe (and so do I) with Habitat for Humanity, the organization whose sweat-equity component affords poor families the opportunity to realize the American dream. But, as politics would have it, Habitat’s latest venture in Far Northeast is allowing the organization to construct new houses on what is essentially swampland. That means that, five, 10 years down the road, by the time the new homeowners are thinking about refinancing and, perhaps, selling, they’ll also be trying to figure out how to cover up their, ahem, dank environs. Of course, the jist of this and other folks’ consternation is that planners, and the policy-makers and voters who support them, tend to clump poor people together in substandard housing.
While that might make for good policy, it doesn’t make good economic sense. “We can’t keep jamming poor folks into slums,” my buddy, H.R. Crawford said, as we cruised Northeast and Southeast, where the promise of homeownership percolates more there than in other wards. A former D.C. Council member for Ward 7, where much of his realty concerns are concentrated, Mr. Crawford has a sizable stake in the District’s renaissance. But, I think he, too, must be warned that he nonetheless is indebted to past, present and future Washingtonians and that, his personal profits aside, he still must make sure that only parts of past urban renewal efforts, that is, the good parts, repeat themselves.
That means the middle-income taxpayers the bread and the butter of the city, the very ones who paid the highest price while wedged during the ‘80s and ‘90s between the haves and the have-nots have to keep their eyes on the prize. And it is a prize that definitely needs our attention.
Now, having said that, forthwith are a few of the reasons why housing is the linchpin. The District recently passed landmark housing legislation that will, in more ways than one, help revitalize the lopsided D.C. housing stock. First, it is important to note that middle-class flight has stemmed and the city’s population is no longer in decline. However, when it comes to the poor, the District remains tops in the Washington region with 54 percent of so-called affordable rental units.
Astonishingly, many of those units are slums, which, to Mayor Tony Williams’ credit, the city is trying to abate by enforcing housing-code laws and other ways. This brings us to point No 2.: The city and federal government subsidize some 25,000 units, and most of them are occupied by the poor and the working poor which is a catch-22, because you must have income and property-tax revenues to take care of the poor. Today, firefighters, police officers, teachers and other civil servants with families whose salaries ordinarily prohibited from them laying down stakes in the city, can now afford to because of tax breaks and the fact there is new single-family housing. Also, more housing construction is in the works in Northeast and Southeast, while condos and apartment rehab are taking place every which way you turn.
But, as I said, there is a hitch, and that is that some folks are nonetheless screaming racism. They are screaming racism because, to make way for new housing, old, dilapidated public-housing projects and privately owned tenements many of which failed to live up to their potential are being gutted or torn down. This is a good thing, because too many families, too many black and Spanish-speaking families, had come to view such housing as their only option.
Interestingly, many of the families displaced by the District’s renaissance have packed their Section 8 housing vouchers and moved to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which haven’t exactly welcomed them with open arms. In fact, some county officials have, in the their nasty way, suggested that D.C. should subsidize those new Marylanders. Of course, the city wouldn’t dare go there.
On the other hand, what’s truly remarkable is the fact that many of those displaced families, those who aren’t crying racism, are using their vouchers as a down payment on a new place in the District to call home.
Now that’s what I’m talking about.

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