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Mayor Anthony A. Williams was in trouble long before he stepped into the meeting hall the night of Wednesday, April 19, at Ward 1’s St. Augustine Catholic School. “We want the mayor! We want the mayor!” chanted a crowd of tenant activists bent on persuading Williams to nix the imminent evictions of hundreds of low-income families from crumbling properties in Columbia Heights.
When the mayor finally paraded into the hall, he met the jeers of a constituency convinced that he is the newest foot soldier in a government-sponsored offensive to whitewash the city’s neighborhoods and transplant the underprivileged to Southeast or other peripheral locales.
At issue was the latest controversy to thrust the neighborhood into the center of the municipal news cycle: A government crackdown on substandard housing—touted by the administration as a blow against irresponsible landlords—has resulted in the shuttering of a growing number of apartment buildings and the eviction of their low-income tenants. And in rapidly upscaling Columbia Heights, where a new Metro station and new development have unleashed a flurry of real estate speculation, it’s fairly certain that those impoverished tenants won’t be able to afford the new, improved, non-life-threatening versions of their old homes.
“I never believed in the Plan before, but now I’m starting to,” screamed Karen Williamson of the D.C. Coalition for Rent Control, prompting the loudest uproar of the evening. Williamson apparently doesn’t figure among the 77 percent of D.C. residents who approve of the mayor’s performance.
The protesters failed to pry a commitment from Williams to “stop the evictions,” but they did define the stakes in the dispute: Without a big assist from city hall, the evicted families won’t find affordable accommodations in the buildings they’re vacating, in other Columbia Heights developments, or, for that matter, in any District neighborhood. “No to gentrification!” shouted Adams Morgan resident Kathleen Wills.
Wills & Co. spent hours shouting down the mayor and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, but they should have demanded a few explanations from the guy standing in the back of the room with his arms folded: Bob Moore, executive director of the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights (DCCH). Over the past year, Moore and his organization have played a central role in Columbia Heights’ other identity crisis—namely, the dispute over a shopping development on a few parcels of public land near the neighborhood’s new Metro station.
DCCH, which Moore has run for 11 years, has received millions in public funds to help build and attract housing and other economic activity to the hard-hit neighborhood. But a list of just 116 units of housing, only 55 of them rental, account for nearly all the outfits completed projects. No wonder the neighborhood’s recent evictees face such long odds. When the Metro station spawned the economic development Moore had never generated, there was little infrastructure to protect the always-tenuous grasp of low-income residents on their community.
“DCCH should either get on the ball developing properties in its inventory or find someone who can do it swiftly,” says Columbia Heights Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Elizabeth McIntire.
It’s no secret why Moore and his community-development corporation have kept themselves out of the debate on the evictions:They are also managers of shuttered properties.
When asked by LL how his corporation was faring on the housing front, Moore talked of progress. “We have a project under way on the 1400 block of Girard Street,” he said.
For further information on that particular project, LL refers readers to a Feb. 22 report by the D.C. inspector general on accountability lapses among the District’s nine community development corporations (CDCs). The centerpiece of the report is a list of six publicly funded projects that have sat collecting dust, vermin, and squatters. Of those six, Moore’s outfit manages four.
For example, the Girard Street building, pictured in the report as a decrepit brick structure with boarded-up windows, is Exhibit A on the list of projects that “did not appear to have visible physical development activity or progress.” According to the Department of Housing and Community Development, the D.C. agency responsible for overseeing the CDCs, Moore received “administrative subgrants” for four straight years, 1996 through 1999, for the rehabilitation of the building’s 20 units. The department also reported that it had awarded DCCH $993,000 in loan commitments for the project in March 1998.
Moore’s three other contributions to the inspector general’s list of shame include two projects on the 1400 block of Chapin Street and another on the 1000 block of Euclid Street. Like the Girard Street project, these structures have sat mothballed even though the D.C. government has been funding their makeovers for years—since 1998 for the Chapin properties and since 1996 for the Euclid property.
Mayor Williams acknowledges the nexus between the inspector general’s findings and the ongoing housing crunch in Columbia Heights. “We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars [to the CDCs], and had some results been shown, things would be a lot easier,” said the mayor last week.
Things might also be easier, counters Moore, if the mayor and his housing flank hadn’t gotten so aggressive in condemning neighborhood buildings. “We’re building housing, but not as fast as they can evict,” says Moore. Former D.C. Councilmember H.R. Crawford—now a developer who has built moderate-income housing in various areas of the city—says other forces are stacked against Moore as well. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault,” says Crawford. “The numbers have to make sense. He has integrated low-income families into his projects.”
The problem is that there just aren’t too many of them. Moore notes that his pending developments will total “less than” 200 units when completed.
A Columbia Heights housing activist puts it more bluntly: “This is one part of the city where you can’t afford to have a dysfunctional CDC.”
Activists in every developmentally challenged corner of the District would doubtless say the same thing, but there’s a reason that Columbia Heights has generated most of the city’s social and racial strife over the past 15 months. Land-banking opportunists, cashing in on the hottest real estate market in years, are threatening to uproot some of the city’s densest pockets of immigrants and low-income residents. Sure, the same gentrifying dynamic has already swept through Logan Circle, Shaw, and Cardozo, but with one critical difference: In those neighborhoods, it gobbled up rows of vacant town houses and displaced as many group-home-living yuppies as poor families.
The outcome of the current face-off in Columbia Heights will determine whether the District morphs into an East Coast version of Aspen—an upper-class refuge that imports a daily army of service labor—or remains what it now is—a city. And if promoting social and racial diversity in D.C. neighborhoods is the goal, don’t expect much help from Moore and the other eight CDCs. For years, the CDCs have bumbled and bungled as their neighborhoods have festered. As if we needed the inspector general’s report to tell us, these groups allow their principals to sit on the boards of companies with which they do business, can’t account for their expenditures, and simply don’t get anything done. “The report pretty much speaks for itself,” says Williams.
In his most recent set of sweeping promises, Williams vowed to begin building 1,000 units of housing before December 2000. His underlings won’t likely meet the deadline, but their sudden emphasis on housing fits a larger pattern that has played itself out over the past year: The city, it seems, is as unprepared for prosperity as it was for depression.
Attracted by a booming city economy, telecom firms ripped up every downtown street, forcing the administration to fashion a hasty response consisting of new regulations, moratoriums on utility cuts, and fees. At the same time, new arrivals have overwhelmed the city’s Department of Motor Vehicles, and again city hall has reacted with stop-gap solutions. Is it any wonder that the District is scrambling to handle the real estate bubble?
“We’re not even organized enough to do a conspiracy,” said Williams last week. It’s not the Plan; it’s just the District government, which is about as bad.
Mayor Williams is at his best when talking about management performance. Before a room packed with local media on Thursday, April 20, Williams unveiled his administration’s latest accountability gimmick: glossy “scorecards” listing chief mayoral goals alongside tight deadlines for achieving them.
The upper left-hand corner of each scorecard features a smiling picture of the Williams cabinet member responsible for delivering a particular category of our municipal nirvana. The card for Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, and Families Carolyn Graham, for instance, features all sorts of ambitious child-care and “parent development” goals.
“The idea is to put ourselves on the spot with some of these priorities,” said Williams at his press briefing.
He should know what that feels like. Just one week before he waxed triumphant on management goals, the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) waxed him on the very same topic. In an April 14 report, the GAO blasted the administration for presenting a shoddy report on 542 “management goals” critical to the District’s renaissance. Each year, Congress requires a report from the administration on progress toward those goals.
“The absence of required performance data for most of the 542 goals makes it clear that the Mayor’s administration has more work to do to gain the full benefits of performance management. In particular, unless future plans and reports that the Mayor issues include goals and performance data for all significant activities of the District government, the agencies will not benefit from the discipline inherent in this process,” says the GAO document.
LL’s Glossary of Federal Bean-Counter Euphemisms translates that bit of GAO-speak thus: “You haven’t done jack.” Still, the most damning indictment to date of Williams’ depravity in service delivery comes from Deputy Mayor for Operations Norman Dong. In an indignant response to the GAO’s findings, Dong listed the reigning achievements of the Williams administration: reopening the Thomas Circle underpass “after a delay of more than a year” and setting up the governmentwide call center.
Now, LL concedes that the call center is a great improvement over out-of-date Blue Pages and other useless municipal directories. But the Williams people should have more pride than to continue boasting of their Thomas Circle breakthrough 15 months into their term. That project, after all, was all but completed before Williams took office. Moving a few orange cones and painting a few street lines count as good management only in the D.C. that Williams denounced in his 1998 mayoral campaign.
In marking his umpteenth press conference last week on performance management, however, the mayor signaled that talking about scorecards has substituted for doing something about the goals listed on them (see chart). The whole spectacle is enough to send LL’s mind reeling back to his old Little League baseball days. Back then, the other players had a word for the ballplayer who perpetually served as scorecard-keeper: benchwarmer.
* From this week onward, everything that Mayor Williams does—each political initiative, gesture, and speech—must be viewed as an act of shameless posturing and pandering. That’s because Williams’ surrogates on Monday registered the mayor’s re-election papers with the Office of Campaign Finance—a move that will allow the candidate to amass a campaign nest egg and head off primary challengers. Re-election campaign Co-Chair Gwendolyn Hemphill says Williams partisans have yet to schedule fundraisers for the first-term mayor. “We’ll discuss those things later,” she says. Hemphill also disputes rumors that the re-election fund will defray the cost of ferrying Virginia Williams, the mayor’s mom, to her packed schedule of community appearances. “I have never heard that before,” she says. An administration source, however, confirms that arranging transportation for the vocal first mother has become “an issue.”CP
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1. Create wallet-sized version of scorecard for handy citizen referral
2. Discuss scorecard on 60 Minutes and other national news magazines
3. Hold additional press conference announcing yet more ambitious
4. Install public pencil sharpener at library to ease scorecard completion
5. Build Web site: www.scorecard.pr.org
6. Exchange thoughts on scorecards with other big-city mayors
7. Change top of scorecard to read: “Re-elect Mayor Williams”