The other day, after a series of newspaper articles on displacement had drawn attention to the plight of thousands of city residents, City Council member Willie J. Hardy was asked what the Distric government was doing to solve the problem. Hardy, chairman of the council's housing committee, reached for a yellow legal pad on her desk.
"It's a big secret, so I'll write you a note," she said.
The note read, "NOTHING" in large capital letters. A reporter asked why.
"Because we're all talk and nothing else," Hardy said.
Housing displacement has made thousands of Washington residents urban nomads who roam the city in search of affordable homes and often end up living in severely overcrowded new quarters and paying rents they cannot afford.
The series in The Washington Post told the horrors of displacement through the experiences of one family of eight in the Logan Circle area. The father earned $9,600 a year. Twice, the family was evicted when their house was sold. They considered themselves lucky when they finally found shelter on one floor of a small row house they share with two other families. There are a total of 18 people in the house.
A reporter asked key city officials what they would say to those facing such a dilemma.
"Lord knows, honey," said Hardy (D-Ward 7). "I don't know (what to tell them), and that hurts me. In the meantime, all I can say is we have an emergency shelter -- which is usually full. I don't have the answer, and wish I did."
City Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) represents the area in which the family lives and in which much of the displacement in the city is now occuring. "If I were cold," Wilson said, "I would say they created their situation. If I was making (that amount of money), I wouldn't have no eight kids." (Wilson, a former civil rights radical, has an income of more than $35,000 and no children.)
D.C. Housing Director Robert L. Moore, once a desegregater of southern lunch counters: "There's some people that have created their situation, (especially) if the man can't pay his bills and he's gambling. . . The first thing they need is some counseling, so he could have better control over his income. Second, there are resources. But none of that is going to be any good if he is going to gamble and doesn't pay his bills."
Most of the elected officials and key advisors to the Mayor have built their political careers around community activism. They championed the cause of the poor and forgotten.
There was Marion Barry and his dream of economic self-sufficiency for the poor through the poor through the self-help group, Pride, Inc. There was Ivanhoe Donaldson, who spent years trying to build a political force among the rural poor in the black belt South. Wilson worked to keep poor black youth out of the Vietnam war and later to assist southern sharecroppers. And Willie Hardy was for years an active voice of the forgotten blacks living east of the Anacostia River.
But now that they are in power, the former activists say there are some things they will not be able to do for the poor.
Families who make less than $10,000 a year just will not be able to afford to own homes in Washington, Moore says. Hardy calls talk of selling homes to the poor "another kick" -- as in a fad. Wilson thinks the idea is "absolutely ludicrous."
"If you're against it, it's like being against religion," he lamented to a reporter the other day. "I'm not against it. It's just not working."
Housing renovation leading to displacement is not the only housing problem the poor face. Apartments are being converted to condominiums. The city's rental housing stock is dwindling. There is a five-year wait to get into public housing, much of which is in poor condition.
Wilson was asked what he saw as the outlook for those who just want to rent. "They ain't got a prayer," he said.
Housing director Moore said the Barry administration has done more to improve the city housing problems in the past eight months than the previous administration did in eight years.
Some programs are already in operation, others are on the drawing board, still others are ignored or misreported by the news media. For example, some housing renovation is aimed at creating rental units for low-income persons, he said. And for the first time, he added, the city is using some of its own funds for housing programs instead of relying primarily on federal funds.
Hardy has a plan to convert unused school buildings into housing for the poor. Wilson said many of the housing programs passed by the Council -- including rent subsidies and home purchase assistance -- have been bottled up in Congress. In the meantime, no one doubts that the problem persists, and perhaps gets worse.
The city government has not found out how many people have been displaced or how many live in overcrowded conditions. And while Barry frequently points out in speeches that 150,000 of the city's 700,000 residents live in danger of displacement, no major relocation plan or program to stop displacement has yet been announced.
Ironically, the booming real estate market in the nation's capital has flooded the city government's coffers with millions of dollars in unanticipated revenues. But that money has seldom been used to offset displacement, by building more low-income housing, for example.
In 1977 and 1978, the city government used about $16 million in revenue windfalls to provide tax relief for property owners. That same amount of money, if combined with private funds, could have built about 2,000 low income housing units.
But homeowners vote. Many poor people do not. Many District politicians have learned that. Thus, the new emphasis on middle class blacks seems to suggest that black government leaders, whose power base once included the poor as well as the middle class, have now based their elected positions solely on the retention of a black middle class constituency that is more likely to vote.
There is no guilt-ridden liberalism to prevent them from promising less. There is little outcry when they make statements that would lead to political lynchings of white officials.
But people have suspicions. The real estate industry contributes heavily to political campaigns in the city, and in some circles the talk of powerlessness and limitations is dismissed as empty rhetoric from politicans who have been bought.
John Wilson suggest that some might view the former activists as sellouts.
"It's really quite unfair to say people have sold out when the powers that be won't let the people who are supposed to run stuff run it," he said. "It ain't no sellout. It's a damn game."