What the Democratic primaries won’t settle: D.C.’s deep socioeconomic wounds

Courtland Milloy
Columnist April 1

Regardless of the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary in the District, residents will awaken to a city with socioeconomic wounds that have festered for years. Racial and economic disparities continue to grow, fueled by academic failure, high unemployment and a dearth of affordable housing.

Paradoxically, the “revitalization” that has exacerbated many of the problems has also created opportunities to help solve them. But marshaling the resources will require extraordinary leadership, someone who burns with a desire to make the city whole, to forge eight wards into one that works for the common good.

During a search for the District’s new chief financial officer last year, Alice Rivlin, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, along with former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, met with residents throughout the city.

“In every ward, all eight of them, the most vocal people thought they were getting short-changed,” Rivlin said. “They all think others are getting more than they do. That happens as much in Ward 3 [the wealthiest] as in Ward 8 [the poorest]. This is a very divided city. So how do we work together and make it a better city?”

Urgency should be the watchword.

“The thing to do right now is face up to the crisis in housing and invest in affordable housing as quickly as we can,” said Peter Edelman, a professor of law and director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University. “What’s been happening with homelessness in the course of the last six months is really about a squeeze on housing.”

What’s been happening is a 135 percent increase in homeless families seeking emergency shelter this winter. Families crowded into shelters, many after being evicted from low-rent apartments that were converted to luxury condominiums.

There has been coldness in the upheavals to which no winter can compare.

A month ago, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who was living in one of the city’s most deplorable shelters, disappeared. No election-night victory speech can resonate through the void created by her loss.

“The city has an $11 billion dollar budget,” said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “We spend $2 billion on schools, $500 million on police, $200 million on fire, but only about $100 million on affordable housing. In a city where the defining issue is affordable housing, we can’t stick with a status quo budget like that. We need to use more of this new prosperity to make the city more affordable.”

A leader does not need tragedy as a reminder that all children deserve a home that is safe and secure.

Without a paycheck, of course, there is no such thing as affordable housing. The Department of Employment Services runs a program called “One City, One Hire,” which is supposed to train residents and encourage businesses to hire them. Nevertheless, in 2012, more than half of the District’s African American adult residents were unemployed, according to a report released last month by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

“We need better job training programs that result in real jobs, but not just jobs for the job trainers,” Rivlin said. “A lot of money has been allocated for it, but there has not been a managerial focus on effectiveness. Progress is too slow, and one of the problems is that a lot of people have a vested interest in systems that don’t work well. When you ask how many people have been trained and how many are working, the answers are vague.”

A leader makes the case for a District with room and opportunity for people from all walks of life. A city affordable only to those with college degrees may sound good to snobs. But if they succeed in creating a city where everybody thinks and acts like them, it’ll be a living hell that even they can’t stand.

So much money flowing through the District, and yet more and more lives being lost as poverty and desperation take its toll.

There have been 30 homicides in the city as of March 29, up 76 percent from the same time last year. And yet, during the primary campaign, pollsters found that most residents believe the city is headed in the right direction.

A leader will acknowledge the optimism, then get to work.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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