D.C. City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), whose ward east of the Anacostia River contains the bulk of the city's nearly 12,000 public housing units, wants to tear down some of them and disperse the families around the city.
Crawford has embarked on a lobbying effort with high-ranking officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to get them to allow the city to raze an undetermined number of the 1,236 public housing units at four projects, all of them located north of East Capitol Street between Benning Road and Southern Avenue NE.
He also has briefed the editorial writers at the city's two daily newspapers, officials from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and local television stations on his plans during guided bus tours he has led through the Richardson, Lincoln Heights, East Capitol Dwellings and Deanwood Gardens public housing complexes.
Crawford, a former HUD assistant secretary of housing, said he had not told the estimated 5,000 tenants at the projects about his plans to tear down some of their apartments and move the people elsewhere because "The last thing we want to do is for people to become alarmed and think we're going to put them on the street."
Emphasizing that his plans are still "on the drawing boards," Crawford said he would meet with the tenants once his plans are more detailed "and simplified."
Crawford said he wants to tear down some of the buildings, rehabilitate others and build new apartments, condominiums, cooperatives and single-family homes on some of the 60 acres now occupied by the projects. Some of the new units would be sold to the displaced tenants who generally have paid their rent on time and kept heir property neat and clean, Crawford said.
But he said that tenants who have been negligent in paying their rent and are unkempt housekeepers would not be allowed to buy or rent the new units.
Crawford's plan would have to be approved by HUD, which has the ultimate control over all public housing in the United States, and by the city government.
Crawford said he thinks it is essential to thin out, in his words "deconcentrate," some of the more than 1,000 public housing units that are now decaying on the hillsides just beyond East Capitol Street because these forgotten public housing projects are producing little more than "despair, neglect," unemployment and crime, not to mention rats.
"Some ofthe people there sleep on the floor," said Crawford. "I'm convinced that the old way of housing the poor has not worked. It's a disaster, the way we've done it. I'm proposing that certain developments have outlived their usefulness."
But Crawford's proposal raises a basic question for the tenants, city housing officials and some City Council members who are aware of it: Where would the displaced families go?
"I don't care for it too much," said Joyce Skinner, president of the tenants' advisory council at the 440-unit Lincoln Heights project, a collection of three-and four-story, dilapidated red brick apartment buildings and row houses. Some city housing officials consider it the worst project in the city.
"The majority of people would not come back because they could not afford the new housing," she said.
City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, chairman of the council's housing committee, said Crawford has also talked to her about his plans. She said she supports scattering public housing throughout the city, but added, "We must be very sure that those current residents have a place to go."
James Clay, deputy director of the city's housing department, declined to comment because "our knowledge of his plans are sketchy. We have talked in generalities and the abstract."
Crawford said there are enough vacant units in other public housing projects in Ward 7 and throughout the city, as well as private apartments, to accommodate all the displaced tenants.
But public housing director Sidney Glee disagreed, saying that there are an estimated 1,015 vacant public housing units around the city and about 150 in Ward 7. But he said that all of them must be rehabilitated before they could be used. Moreover, the city has more than 5,000 families waiting to get into public housing and some have been on the waiting list for more than five years.
The city has its own plans for the four public housing projects, part of a group of 10 public housing projects that District housing officials identified two years ago as the city's worst because they are in the most advanced state of decay.
Crawford said he might ask D.c. mAyor Marion Barry to halt the $23.4 million rehabilitation planned at East Capitol Dwellings, Richardson and Lincoln Heights. "We can't continue to fix them up," Crawford said, without changing the social fabric of the public housing society by motivating the tenants to keep their homes clean and "discipline" themselves and their children. Most of the tenants are mothers who receive public assistance for three to four children.