News that the city planned to evict thousands of illegal residents of District public housing units beginning this month struck a nerve in a lot of people around town.
Leaders of housing advocacy groups warned the city not to do it. "I think it is an abominable idea. It is self-destructive for the city," said Florence Roisman of the National Housing Law Project. "It will hurt people. It will hurt the city. It is outrageous."
Some public housing tenant council representatives were happy. "I give the plan my unqualified support," said Kimi Gray, president of the Kenilworth Parkside Resident Management Corp. and chairman of the Citywide Resident Advisory Board. "There is a direct link between violations of lease agreements . . . and the condition of the property in which tenants live."
Some City Council members were mad. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), head of the council's housing committee was shocked by the plan, which was not reviewed by the council.
"It will create an enormous need for social services," she predicted.
In defense of these evictions, Mayor Marion Barry said the city had proposed the action because illegal tenants are costing the city money in unpaid rent, utility consumption and repairs on the overcrowded units. "I sympathize with people who need housing, but the District cannot do it all," he said.
Late yesterday, Barry softened the city's eviction plans to allow residents to add their names to leases, sparing many relatives of tenants who are not now officially authorized to live in the units, but confusion about the eviction plans persisted.
And it has become clear that no thought went into the havoc the decision could cause. As homeless activist Mitch Snyder put it, "Being squeezed into public housing beats the hell out of being on the streets."
The fact is, many of these illegal tenants fall into special categories that deserve consideration.
Some are teen-age or young adult mothers who, with their babies, are residing with their parents. Others are young unemployed men living with their mothers. While an additional baby or a son forced back to his mother's home might constitute additional people in a given home, and while their names may not be on any official lease, they certainly do not fit the description of people defrauding the city by living in public housing. The city or even the state should not to be responsible for breaking up families.
But the question that must be asked is why people are living illegally in public housing units in the first place. While it is true that some of them are taking the opportunity to rip off the city, the grim fact is that this city has a drastic shortage of affordable rental housing for low-income people. Indeed, the city has one of the highest rates of unoccupied units for public housing in the nation, 16.2 percent.
Moreover, 13,000 families are already on the waiting list to move into housing projects in the District. So it stands to reason that some people do not have any choice but to double up and pile up in already crowded dwellings.
Instead of throwing poor people out into the streets, the city's first priority should be putting every ounce of its energy into readying the more than 2,000 vacant units in this city so that some of the families can be put into units that are large enough for them.
The city's second priority should be taking the 9,000 substandard occupied units and bringing them up to code from their current substandard status. And then the city should begin to have some serious discussion about producing more new housing.
It is apalling that a city that has 13,000 eligible, needy families waiting for housing has so many vacant units that are in disrepair.
Until the city cleans up its own act and makes some decent housing available to low-income people, it is not only absurd but inhumane to put this kind of pressure on poor people to pack up and hit the streets.
When individuals are rash, their relationships usually suffer. When governments are rash, their citizens suffer, and often the damage is irreversible.