D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who has all but formally announced plans to seek reelection, is reviving a two-year-old effort to organize the city's thousands of public housing tenants -- a largely voiceless and powerless constituency regarded by many as a potentially rich vein of unregistered voters.
The city's housing department hired 15 public housing residents in July to establish or reestablish tenant councils in all 52 public housing projects in the city. Ostensibly, the $10,554-a-year organizers are also to monitor maintenance crews, answer office telephones, relay announcements from housing officials to tenants, and helpimprove buildings and grounds.
But, according to several city officials, anadditional objective is to encourage tenants toregister as voters and, as next year's election approaches, to keep alive the idea that any improvements the tenants see around them are courtesy of the Barry administration. The plan includes distributing mail-in voter registration cards totenants.
Most city officials are trying to avoid any outward political appearances in the program. Public housing administrator Sidney Glee flatly denies a connection with Barry's aspirations, and Anita Bonds, a special assistant to the mayor and one of his principal political operatives, says that planning for his expected reelection bid has not even begun.
But another mayoral assistant, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "The hiring of the 15 is an effort by the administration to help the people to do better, and part of the hope is that it will have positive political benefits."
If the organizers help improve the looks of the projects, reduce crime and give tenants pride in their property, he said, "it is hoped that this will translate into a warm feeling for Marion, and if they don't make the connection between the mayor and the improvements , they will be helped to make the connection."
Kimi Gray, chairman of the citywide Residents Advisory Council created several years ago during the Walter Washington administration, said the real purpose of the program is "to teach people in public housing to better themselves," and that a key tool is to register in large numbers to vote.
Gray, an ally of former Ward 7 City Councilwoman Willie Hardy, who supported Sterling Tucker against Barry in the 1978 Democraticprimary for mayor, was careful, however, not to suggest how public housing tenants should vote in 1982.
"For our folks to receive [improved] services, they must be registered and vote," she said simply. "Ward 3 [the predominantly white ward west of Rock Creek Park] is courted because they are registered voters. We know we can get betterservices if we are registered voters."
An estimated 52,000 people live in public housing, most of them concentrated in aging, barren projects in Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River. No one knows how many of the tenants are registered voters, but registration traditionally has run low in public housing.
Barry lost both Ward 7 and Ward 8 in the 1978 election. Of the 28 precincts that contain public housing projects throughout the city, Barry won only seven, while Tucker and Washington took the others.
With the 1982 election approaching, Barryrecently announced a number of actions he says will improve the lot of public housing residents. Among them, he said he intends to spend$61.4 million in local and federal funds to modernize about one-third of the 12,000 public housing units in the city. He also announced formation of a new triumvirate of officials to head the public housing administration, with the avowed purpose of ironing out its many management troubles.
He appointed acting public housing chief Sidney Glee as permanent director and brought in two housing specialists from other cities to be deputy director and property manager. Glee was appointed, in part, because he is believed to enjoy the support of many public housing tenants.
The newly hired council organizers -- part of an effort to revive a council plan that started two years ago but largely foundered -- have received mixed reviews from residents, as well as officers, of those tenant councils that do exist. Some council presidents said the organizers are trying to be helpful, but others were critical.
"The money they are paying those people they could be paying the building captains for keeping the buildings clean," said one Northwest council president, who asked not to be named.
"We haven't found out what they were here for," said Helen Curtis, president of Harvard Towers, a senior citizens building off 16th Street NW near the National Zoo. "We're already organized. She [the organizer] just comes and is around."
Bill Atkins, a council member at East Capitol Dwellings in far Northeast, said he distrusted any organizers who work for the government.
"The housing department will not allow them the councils to become too effective," he said. "I think it's just to pacify the people and get them to vote in the election year."
The tenant council plan goes back to 1979, when Kimi Gray and Landen McCall, a colleague of Barry's at Youth Pride Inc., a now defunct federally funded self-help group, were mandated to organize resident councils and a system of floor and building captains, sources said. Every 10 households were to have a representative on a resident council.
Only four or five organizers, who were nonpublic-housing residents, were hired, and most of the program ground to a halt after a few months.
Glee said the new organizers -- all public housing residents -- work for Paul Roberson, chief of organizational services in the public housing administration. McCall is now a special assistant to city housing director Robert L. Moore.
Some of the mayor's advisers consider it risky to attempt organizing tenants who live in some of the city's shabbiest housing at a time when there is a dwindling supply of money to make improvements for them. The tenants could turn against Barry, some administration sources say.
"A tenet of organizing is that you've got to give people victories early on," said one source close to the planning. In the early days of the Barry administration, for example, the mayor and city housing director Moore regularly visited public housing projects. When tenants complained of broken windows and appliances, or unanswered requests for transfers to other apartments, Moore or the mayor would promise quick action, and the promises generally were kept.
Since these early forays, Barry has said little about public housing until two to three weeks ago when he announced $61.4 million in modernization, and the new public housing triumvirate.
Some of the money still needs federal approval. Although the mayor said the city had $18.2 million in federal funds for the modernization of East Capitol Dwellings, for example, federal officials have released only about $7 million.