Two summers ago, Mayor Walter E. Washington helped break ground for a new housing project in the 14th Street riot corridor. That was one of the few such ceremonies scheduled for that entire year.
This summer - the months leading up to the important Sept. 12 Democratic mayoral primary - the story has been different. This month alone, the mayor has spoken at groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies marking the beginning of renovation for the Sky Tower apartment complex in far Southeast; the first housing rehabilitation loan in the Southeast community of Marshall Heights; the beginning of rehabilitation for the low-and moderate-income apartments in his own LeDroit Park neighborhood; the renovation of slum properties on Bates Street; and on Martin Luther King Avenue SE, the city's first federally funded commercial rehabilitation project.
It all adds up to an unusually busy month for the mayor to make public appearances related to housing programs. It also adds up to an excellent opportunity for the mayor to shake some hands and tell crowds that his adminstration is trying to help them with their housing needs.
That has become particularly important this year because housing is one of this campaign's most important issues. Tenants are fighting evictions and trying to stave off condominium conversion. Homeowners are struggling to pay increased property taxes, and young families are trying to purchase houses in areas where prices have skyrocketed. And it has become even more important for the mayor because his housing department has frequently been criticized for what opponents say is a lack of creativity in its housing programs and policies.
At the dedication in Marshall Heights, the stable far Southeast community of modest brick homes where many retired government workers and moderate-income families reside, Mayor Washington told an enthusiastic group of about 50 neighborhood residents that, along with the granting of rehabilitation loans to fix up their deteriorated houses, the city will make street improvements in their community.
"We're not talking about coming to Marshall Heights. We're not promising to come. We're here," he said. He followed his remarks with a hand-shaking tour of the audience, as a woman on stage sang "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand" and reminded listeners that it was under the mayor that they got their rehabilitation loans program set up.
Spokesmen for the mayor's two major opponents view the appearances as one of the advantages of being an incumbent.
Whether the mayor actually benefits from such public appearances "depends on how deeply the electronic recognizes the extent of the housing crisis," said Sherwood Ross, campaign secretary for City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, who also is running for mayor.
"When one-third of the people are housed in poor housing, and suddenly before the election the mayor begins a series of Whirlwind appearances to back up his act, it could backfire," Ross said. "A sudden show of concern in the eleventh hour could disappoint them (the public) rather than hearten them. My guess is that the pulbic will see through this." Tucker also sometimes is invited to speak at dedication ceremonies as head of the City Council.
Florence Tate, campaign press secretary for City Council member Marion Barry (D-At Large), who also is running for mayor in the Democartic primary next month, said that Barry often is not invited to such events because he is not the incumbent mayor or Council chairman. Such appearances, she said, "are part of the mayor's campaign. They are to his advantage."
Based on press releases filed in the mayor's public information office, the flurry of appearances this spring and summer is unusual compared to recent years. In addition to the dedication and groundbreaking ceremonies already held and planned for the next few weeks, there also have been press releases announcing that the mayor or city housing officials are seeking additional funds for more projects.
Press releases about housing dating back to January 1976 show this certainly has not always been the case. There were few such ceremonies or announcement two years ago. The number of dedications picked up substantially last year, spread out from February to November. The press releases also show that it was not until recently that the mayor has bee scheduled to appear at nearly all such ceremonies. And whereas in the past the releases often started out, "The Department of Housing and Community Development today announced . . .," Now, they more often begin, "Mayor Walter E. Washington today announced . . ."
A spokesman for the mayor said the reason there seem to be so many groundbreakings and dedications now is that many projects "that have been in the works for quite a while" have come to fruition this spring and summer as funds have become available. "Up until three years ago, with the Nixon housing freeze, nothing was happening. Once that was lifted, things started happening," she said.
She also said that the mayor tries to go to all the housing ceremonies he can because of his housing background. Washington was chairman of the New York City Housing Authority in 1966 and 1967. "It's something close to him," she said. She said that often community organizations set up dedication and groundbreaking ceremonies and decide who they want to invite themselves.
Abe Greenstein, of the city department's neighborhood improvement administration, noted that in the past, there haven't always been formal ceremonies to mark the beginning of work on various projects. Greenstein said he thinks having the ceremonies is a good idea. "It's better for him to show what he has done," Greenstein said.
Whatever the reason for the new housing projects, one thing is certain: Some communities, for the first time, are getting the help with their housing problem that they have wanted for years.
In Marshall Heights, for instance, civic groups had been working to set up a loan program. The recipients of the first loan are Lester and Delores Pope, who live at 126 53rd St. SE. They will get a $20,000 low-interest loan, and aobut $3,000 of that amount will be a deferred payment loan that they repay only if they sell the house. Pope, a GS-5 federal protection officer for the General Services Administration, said being able to fix up his house is a "longstanding dream that's become a reality."
Shepherd Osborne is getting federal housing funds and money from the Small Business Administration to rehabilitate the gutted, vacant frame shell of a building that he owns at 2028 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, and will open an orthopedic supply business. The second floor of the building, constructed in 1890 and in the Uniontown Historic District, will be offices for rent. That project got under way after a housing employe who works in Anacostia was told by nearby merchants that they were having trouble getting fire insurance because of the two-story vacant building next door.