When he gets to it, Mayor Marion Barry could eliminate one of the incredible Catch-22 situations that beset our cities. He could, by signing his name, move nine low-income families into new homes and keep a downtown rehabilitation area integrated rather than "gentrified."
The situation is a symptom of a peculiar urban disease that is worse than poverty, abandonment, pollution or the flight of industry and bourgeoisie because it aggravates all of them.
I would call this dread disease "Calcified Bureaucratic Indifference" -- Calburin for short.
The case in point is Logan Circle, a historic landmark at the intersection of Vermont and Rhode Island Avenues.
Logan Circle is one of the finest collections of lush, Victorian houses in the country. Early in this century, the original owners moved further west to Dupont Circle and beyond. The area rapidly became a slum so bad that no one even bothered to bulldoze it.
The D.C. government discovered this treasure six years ago and commissioned architects Satterlee and Turner to work out a plan to make the area habitable for people of all income groups without destroying its architectural character. It was a nifty study, and the Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA), surely the most frustrating of our old city government frustrations, carefully filed it away.
What saved Logan Circle was not the ignored study, but Satterlee's beautiful illustrations. Satterlee died shortly thereafter, but his drawings of Logan Circle houses were repeatedly printed in the newspapers. Even RLA bureaucrats pinned them on their walls.
The publicity attracted adventuresome middle-income professionals who, at considerable risk, buy and restore old houses. As they began their efforts, cries of "black removal" were heard. RLA responded by playing "Upstairs-Downstairs." It finally divested itself of 14 abandoned houses on condition that each purchaser make a basement apartment available to low-income people.
John Ritch, who works on Capitol Hill and is not a wealthy man, was attracted to No. 4 Logan Circle, a large house at the corner of P Street. He was standing at the corner six years ago, after reading the Satterlee report, he said, and could just see the house restored to its old glory. But he could not use it for himself. He decided to buy it as a modest investment -- in both the house and the city -- and to turn it into apartments for people of small means.
Ritch spent inordinate amounts of time at his new philanthropic hobby reading government housing and loan regulations. Another house he restored nearby, for low-income families proved successful, but No. 4 proved to be a nightmare.
Ritch bought No. 4 in 1973 for $23,000. He has been paying taxes and interest ever since, without earning any income. His first architect charged a lot, but did not work out. The second, Ian Bircher, did.
With Bircher's drawing, Ritch applied for a rehabilitation loan that the city makes available for his kind of project. He was declared eligible. But in order to know how much money to lend him, RLA demanded to know exactly how much the rehabilitation would cost. Ritch presented a contractor's estimate of $160,000 -- valid only for 60 days because of inflation.
RLA, however, required far longer than 60 days to "process" the application and run the cost estimate through its computers. Meanwhile, inflation, property taxes and interest payments ticked away. Finally, after 60 days had passed, the contractor withdrew his bid.
Ritch started over again. This time the estimate came to $220,000. After 60 days RLA was still processing, checking, procrastinating, apparently indifferent and certainly wasting your money and mine. Again the contractor backed out. Again, inflation, propety taxes and interest payments accumulated.
Low income housing, "black removal," "gentrification" or no, Ritch might, by then, have recognized that the city did not care, and have turned No. 4 over to a speculative developer, made a moderate profit and let the house become a luxury condominium.
But he had learned perseverance at West Point. He also figured that the bureaucrats knew the house and him by then and could work a little faster. He obtained a third bid for $270,000 -- a totally unnecessary increase of 69 percent, $110,000, because of the bureaucracy.
"The reason for the delays," Ritch said, "was that no one was in charge of my problem. The case was all fragmented and divided among different people. Some were helpful, others indolent. No one quite knew how what he did fitted into the larger picture of what was needed. Everyone just did his or her job and did not know or care what was supposed to result from it. They were all just cogs in the 'frustration machine.'"
When Ritch's third attempt to get his loan threatened to fail, he walked into the RLA office, sat down at a desk and spent two days filling the forms out himself. The bureaucrats were speechless and scared. They suspected he had some pull. As a result, in 1977 -- four years after the first applications -- the loan papers were finally signed and the contractor, Robert Miller of a small outfit called "The Building Game," could finally go to work.
With an estimated 1,000 phone calls and a large file cabinet full of paper-work, Ritch also obtained a federal Section 8 loan. That means that his low-income tenants, if they meet certain criteria, need pay only one-quarter of their income for rent and the federal government pays the difference between that figure and the going market rate to which Ritch is entitled.
As always on rehabilitation work, the going on No. 4 was tough. A whole wall caved in -- luckily killing none of the prostitutes who frequented the corner. Inflation kept rising, and the job proved more expensive than Miller and Ritch had estimated. Last spring -- with 90 percent of the work completed, and nine apartments promised to nine families -- owner and contractor were in debt.
Ritch applied for a supplemental loan secured by the federal Section 8 arrangement which would assure Ritch of a steady rent income with which to repay all loans.
But the District government requires that property be reappraised for a supplemental loan application. The city appraisers say No. 4 Logan Circle is worth $290,000. Ritch now needs a total of $390,000. He says the appraisal is based on ordinary techniques that do not take into account the phenomenal increase in the values of restored Victorian buildings, the socio-economic changes on Logan Circle, or the Section 8 equity.
The city appraisers, the city housing officials and everyone else concerned readily agree. But under law, the city appraiser must follow the prescribed appraisal techniques. The city's legal department confirmed this: Catch-22.
After nine months of stalemate, Ritch and his contractor are at the very edge of bankruptcy. The almost completed house is deteriorating again. The nine families who are waiting to move are sheltered in temporary quarters, some without adequate heat.
Last week Ritch faced two alternatives: sell out to a commercial builder who would complete the job for rich tenants, or make a last minute appeal to Mayor Barry and his new housing director Robert Moore. The mayor seems to have the right to waive the reappraisal requirement.
Last night the application had been on Moore's desk for five working days.
Another case of "Calburin?"