Thornton W. Owen, chairman of Perpetual Federal Savings and Loan Association, the District's largest S&L, has urged a formal city government policy of encouraging more affluent people to move into the city while finding housing for some of the city's poorer families in the suburbs.
Owen made the recommendations at a meeting of the city's Legislative Commission on Housing, of which he is a member. Other members include two City Council members and the directors of the city's housing department, planning office and budget office.
Reaction to Owen's comments among city officials ranged from angry denunciations of it as a racist measure to force blacks into the suburbs to acceptance of the concept as one aimed at promoting a more balanced housing situation for the region as a whole.
Some officials privately hold the view expressed openly by City Councilman Julius Hobson in the months before he died last March that the widely heralded "return" of whites to the city is part of a conscious effort by bankers, businessmen and other white forces to dilute the black power base of this predominantly black city.
Disclosure of Owen's statement comes in the wake of a published report on Sunday by the Washington Center for Metropolitan Studies showing that, whether by design or not, the number of white households in the city is increasing for the first time in decades while the black population is remaining stable.
Owen made his proposal in later January but it came to light only after the commission issued an interim report in April on its activities up to that time.
All commission meetings are open to the public but no members of the press were present forthe meeting at which Owen made the recommendation.
Also, the report was initially barred from public distribution because of a City Council order that none of the commission's materials be released without "the express approval" of the Council.
In his statement, Owen said there seems to be a tendency on the part of the city government to emphasize providing housing for low and moderate-income families. The city needs to provide housing for the more affluent who can pay taxes and thereby expand the city's tax base, he said.
"The need of the city is for a balanced supply of housing, otherwise its fiscal problems will become further aggravated as a result of the number of less affluent persons receiving aid from the District," he stated.
"Middle and upper-income groups should be encouraged to move into the District, while steps should be taken to find housing for some of the low and moderate-income groups in the adjacent suburban areas where moderate priced housing is more available," Owen added.
In reacting to Owen's statement, all city officials interviewed said low and moderate-income families should not be financially coerced into leaving the city. But several said they believed that the suburbs should make more housing available for these families so they can have aplace to live if they wish to leave the city.
The strongest public reaction to Owen's comments came from Nadine Winter, a fellow commission member and chairman of the Council's housing committee, who said she believes Owen was saying in effect that blacks should leave the city and whites should move in.
"I'm really shocked that he would be bold enough to write that," she said. "It's almost saying - it's a form of suggesting a black exodus from the city . . . Whites left the city. We (black people) should not have to leave because they want to come back."
City Councilman Marion Barry, another commission member agreed with Winter's contention that Owen's comments contain racial overtones "because low and moderate-income people in the city are mostly blacks."
Mayor Walter E. Washington said he would not speculate on whether Owen's statement carried racial implications.
Owens said he was simply referring to economic groups and not racial groups.
Owen's coments come at a time when an increasing number of whites are buying and renovating homes in rundown neighborhoods and displacing black tenants.
Owen said in an interview that as long as there is little housing built for the more affluent they must compete with poorer people for the existing housing.
Since the rich can afford to pay higher prices for housing than the poor, they will obtain the available existing housing and "push the other fella out," he said.
Low and moderate income people should not be forced to leave the city, he said, but "the economics will force them out . . . They are virtually priced out now" because of spiraling costs of housing in the city. The average sale price for a city. The average sale price for a city home is about $50,000.
By "low and moderate" income earners, Owen said he was referring to people earning between $10,000 and $12,000 annually. The city would still have to care for its very poor, those who need public housing, he said.
Those low and moderate-income families remaining in the city will also need some form of subsidies, Owen said, because "both rental and owner-occupied housing are presently out of (their) reach."
Since "subsidies from the federal government are inadequate, diminishing and at best sporadic," he said, the city government should develop its own subsidy programs and create a housing agency to finance housing construction and rehabilitation.
Ben W. Gilbert, another commission member and director of the city's planning office, disagreed with Owen's statement that the city is placing too much emphasis on housing low and moderate-income residents.
"Emphasis on housing for low and moderate-income people is essential or else where do people affected by rehabilitation go?" he sai.
Since the "District is becoming more attractive to all groups because of the energy crisis and Metro," Gilbert said, the city "doesn't want to do anything to push low and moderate-income people out of the District who want to live in the city, but we also want to keep the welcome mat out for all groups who want to live here."
Gilbert acknowledged Owen's comments "seem to kind of suggest that we should be pushing low and moderate income people out and bringing more affluent people in," but Gilbert added that be believes Owen simply meant that the suburbs should provide more housing for low and moderate-income people who may wish to leave the District.
"I would never have said it that way," Gilbert said.
The nine-member housing commission was created earlier this year to develop a housing policy for the city.
The members were jointly appointed by the mayor and City Council. The commission is scheduled to issue its final report that will contain the proposed policy in September. After that, it will be up to the mayor and City Council to decide if they wish to adopt it as city policy.