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Last week, Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry finally confronted an issue pressing enough to distract him from his campaign to lure a Nordstrom to his county. The problem? Poor people. It seems refugees from a gentrifying District of Columbia are streaming eastward across the D.C.-P.G. line and threatening to water down the county’s nationwide image as a reserve of rich African-Americans.
As Curry sees it, the crisis at hand stems from the imminent conversion of the District’s East Capitol Dwellings, a public housing complex of 577 units, to a mixed-income community of half that size. Displaced residents, Curry fears, will move a few blocks east, across the threshold of his swanky fiefdom.
Curry’s stance reflects the desperation of someone who long ago reached his personal tipping point on underclass absorption. The District’s poor “come out here and then become part of our responsibility to address in housing and social terms,” he told the Washington Post. “I want money to take care of relocated people.”
Funny, LL doesn’t remember P.G. leaders complaining a decade ago, back when their county was sucking up the District’s middle class. Such a distress signal might have sounded like this: “These highly educated, civic-minded people come out here, build houses, create jobs, fill our treasuries, and expect us to smile? This is an administrative nightmare. Enough is enough.” Perhaps Curry can take care of his funding problems by extracting extra tax revenue from those affluent former D.C. residents.
In fairness to Prince George’s officials, they aren’t necessarily calling on the District to find quarters for all the folks bounced from public housing. The long-term solution, P.G.ers say, is to spread public assistance recipients evenly around the region. Curry himself has talked about getting help from “the other communities around Washington.” Prince George’s County Councilman Peter Shapiro, who represents a ring of low-income communities on the D.C.-P.G. border, argues that pitting the District against his county amounts to “letting other suburban communities off the hook.” And P.G. Councilman Tom Hendershot says, “The fundamental problem is that places like Montgomery County, Arlington, and Fairfax do not have available a housing stock where these people can live.”
LL’s interpretation: When the newcomers cross the county line in Metrobuses instead of Volvos, it’s time to talk regionalism.
Well, welcome to the cause. District leaders have been urging regionalism on Prince George’s and other jurisdictions since the onset of home rule—most commonly via pleas for a commuter tax that would defray the strains suburbanites place on city services. That particular regional appeal, however, has never taken root in Prince George’s, much less Montgomery, Fairfax, and Loudoun. Nor will Curry’s call for a regionwide resolution to the D.C.-Prince George’s housing crunch. When it comes to screwing Washington’s indigent, there’s nothing quite so effective as a collection of competing municipalities, especially in boom times.
In crying out about housing costs, Curry was trying to call attention to his own plight as county leader. In the process, however, he performed an unwitting public service: shining a light for the first time on the losers in the area’s late-’90s economic expansion.
Think about how the sudden prosperity has played in the local dailies: Home sellers don’t even need to hang a “For Sale” shingle! White yuppies will do anything to get first dibs on choice Dupont Circle rental properties! Chain stores are revitalizing once-blighted neighborhoods!
Those reports, of course, are all true, but they lack the implications of a concurrent trend: the tendency of local developers to erect new housing at prices beyond the reach of the working poor. Sure, some of the new town houses in Ward 8 have ducked the $100,000 threshold, but developments within a couple of Metro stops of downtown are generally built for the tech-stock-and-SUV crowd.
The dwindling housing options, says Shapiro, mean that evictees from D.C. low-income housing won’t even stop before they reach his constituency. Shapiro proffers the embattled tenants of the condemned buildings in Columbia Heights as an example: “Where do you think they’re going to go? I think they’re going to move into Langley Park,” says Shapiro.
District officials certainly won’t lay down any roadblocks—and a few choice stats explain why: According to a Brookings Institution study, the District as of 1999 handled fully 63 percent of the region’s welfare caseload, far eclipsing P.G.’s 15 percent share. In 1997, 73 percent of District schoolchildren qualified for subsidized lunch programs, almost twice the rate of the next jurisdictions, Arlington and Prince George’s. And of all regional jurisdictions, D.C. in 1996 had the lowest percentage of households with incomes exceeding $50,000 (30 percent).
Call it poverty fatigue: In recent years, nearly all of the District’s socioeconomic initiatives have romanced middle-class taxpayers with the things they love, like chain stores and tax cuts. And even though Mayor Anthony A. Williams has pledged to work with Curry on his poverty problem, any plan conceived to bail out our not-so-needy neighbor stands no chance before the legislative branch at One Judiciary Square.
“I have no sympathy for Wayne Curry,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who oversees public housing on the D.C. Council. Ambrose says D.C. elementary schools, which offer after-school care not available in Prince George’s, “are still educating a goodly number of P.G. children.”
At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who chairs the council’s Committee on Local and Regional Affairs, would sooner relocate to a Lake Arbor subdivision than head off the exodus of housing seekers. “When was the last time Wayne Curry did anything for us?” asks the councilmember.
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But unlike Catania, Curry has access to a lever that might force cooperation from a recalcitrant neighbor: Prince George’s County is represented in Congress. And as a history of D.C. appropriations shows, virtually any sort of micromanagerial dictate can be forced on the city by the fully empowered members of Congress from its suburbs. (So far, there’s no indication that Curry is contemplating using Capitol Hill to thwart Williams.)
With ever-declining options here in the District and an official unwelcome from Prince George’s—Shapiro insists that the county simply doesn’t have the resources to accommodate more low-income residents—public-assistance recipients will have to roam the region in search of a hospitable site. “It all points up a problem that we stopped talking about sometime in the ’80s,” says Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, “and that’s affordable housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income households….It’s not an issue that most people care about anymore.”
The ranks of the indifferent must include officials in Fairfax and Montgomery, whose idea of affordable shelter is limited to interstate overpasses. But just as scorn for regionalism runs strong in the wealthiest counties, it also grips the District, whose historic dysfunction and recent revival have left its leaders disinclined to make sacrifices for surrounding jurisdictions.
“When has P.G. County been anything other than predatory when it comes to D.C.?” asks Catania. “Wayne Curry needs to get a second job; he spends too much time worrying about what happens in the District.”
Public Benefit Corp. (PBC) President John Fairman, who manages D.C. General Hospital, is trying to cultivate an esprit de corps among staffers at the city’s embattled public hospital. Over the past week, Fairman has announced raises for certain unionized employees, held morale-boosting sessions in the hospital auditorium, and glad-handed subordinates in the cafeteria.
The president, however, will have to do a lot more politicking to head off the fallout likely to result from an imminent reorganization—one of the PBC’s desperate moves to keep the hospital, a sacred cow of city politics, afloat. According to an internal PBC memo, Fairman will soon ask for the resignations of “all managerial staff,” in a purge that could claim the jobs of 130 PBC staffers. The memo says that some resignations will be “immediately accepted” while “others will be reviewed as we proceed with the assistance of our consultants.”
“Under the new [PBC], we have the wherewithal to let folks go,” says Fairman. “This is a call to say that everybody has to get on the team.” Or off the team, as the case may be. Fairman says he’s already scrapped the PBC’s entire info-tech office; the move took three employees off the hospital payroll and demoted a fourth.
The PBC will likely roll out the restructuring in a couple of weeks, after it digests a series of management reform recommendations from Cambio Health Solutions, a consulting outfit that is now scouring the hospital in search of waste. “The idea,” says Fairman, “is to reduce costs, increase revenue, and improve efficiency.” In addition to firing loafers, hospital brass are planning to dispatch “several dozen” doctors to the PBC’s nine neighborhood clinics.
Word of Fairman’s shake-up has yet to filter down to line workers at the hospital. “I don’t get a sense of what they’re doing,” says a source who requested anonymity.
* Since signing on as a political reporter at the Washington Times, Rebecca Charry has provided comprehensive coverage of the flap between D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and grass-roots supporters of the nascent Paul Charter School. If Charry exhibits a mastery of her subject matter, there’s a logical explanation: Before accepting the Times job, she was paid to complete a study of the local charter movement for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the prime stakeholder in the Paul battle and other long-standing disputes with the regular old public schools.
Charter board Executive Director Nelson Smith says he paid Charry $1,500 to evaluate the first year of the various charter programs in D.C. “I was looking for somebody who was a good writer and could do interviews with charter schools,” says Smith, who doesn’t believe that Charry’s work on the board’s behalf taints her reporting.
For her part, Charry—whose coverage of charter schools has been balanced and timely—says she was unemployed when she accepted the charter-board contract and disclosed the arrangement to her Times supervisors when she took the job.
Times Metropolitan Editor Carleton Bryant says that the reporter’s involvement with the charter group merited neither a disclosure to the readers nor a cooling-off period before she could cover related issues. “It’s below the threshold” for disclosure, he says.
* Too bad Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. didn’t compete against Williams & Co. in the 1998 mayoral race. That way, at least, Hizzoner would have learned the truth, one way or the other, about his political future in D.C. With a reasonable doubt on that score still hanging in the air, Barry’s ambitions to return to elected office have now passed from flimsy gossip to fact. Capitol Hill resident Michael Cushman reports having received a call from a Birmingham, Ala., polling firm that posed various questions about the upcoming race for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council.
Cushman says the initial questions in the poll could have come from any candidate—for example, “Are you a registered voter?” and “Will you vote in the primary?” Then, he recalls, the questions took a turn that could only have been engineered by Barry. Here’s a sampling:
* “Given that Marion Barry has put his problems behind him, is he a role model for youth?”
* “Does [Barry] support kids?”
* “Does [Barry] support old folks?”
* “Does [Barry] represent the community?”
And, in a striking instance of self-awareness, the pollster posed this humdinger:
* “How do you feel about the statement that you might just like him to go away?”(Try: Pretty good.)
When asked about the poll, Barry responded, “Don’t know a thing about it.” The Palmer Group, the firm that called Cushman, didn’t return a call from LL.
* Someone down at city hall is trying to infuse the delayed audit of D.C.’s fiscal year 1999 books with all the suspense of the Iranian hostage crisis. In a story line repeated all too often in this space, Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt was supposed to deliver the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) by Feb. 1, but she is still trying to reconcile the numbers. On Monday, an anonymous Holt basher circulated a flier around One Judiciary Square saying, “TODAY, APRIL 3, 2000, IS: DAY 62 OF CAFR HELD HOSTAGE! THE CLOCK CONTINUES TO TICK!” Holt denied all alleged ties to fundamentalist accounting students.CP
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