A conservative strain in Mayor Marion Barry's political philosophy, underscored by the furor this week over plans to increase evictions of D.C. public housing residents, emerged in sharp outline yesterday as Barry sought to regain the initiative on the intractable public housing problems faced by his administration.
Invoking the ideal of self-reliance, the mayor lashed out at "mushy-headed liberals" who would coddle rent delinquents and tenants residing illegally in public housing units rather than evict them.
"I think it is only proper and fair that we take them to court and evict them. Evict them," Barry said of residents who don't comply with their leases. "Now that may sound kind of harsh, but how do you break this cycle of dependency -- of drugs, crime and poverty -- unless you have this kind of self-help direction?"
Barry's comments, in the view of City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), reflect the "frustration" of a city official who has not been able to bring the problems of public housing under control.
"I think the mayor's action does represent a certain degree of conservatism that comes when you are not staging a sit-in yourself but are the one who is being bombarded as an elected official," said Jarvis, who is chairman of the Housing and Economic Development Committee.
Barry appeared at a news conference with several public housing residents, including Kimi Gray, the head of the Kenilworth-Parkside housing project's resident management corporation. Gray, a forceful tenant leader who is a vice chairman of Barry's reelection campaign finance committee, said she and other housing residents have urged the mayor to get tough with residents who violate housing regulations.
"Public housing has been treated as housing of last resort too long," she said. "Those of us in public housing who are good rent-paying residents who maintain our homes and send our children to school every day and are good respectable tax-paying citizens have to deal with that 5 to 10 percent of housing residents that do not want to adhere to their lease."
Barry emphasized that the violators must be brought into conformance or they will be jettisoned from the system. Declining to estimate the number of residents who are violating leases, Barry said they include drug dealers, squatters, family members who have not added new residents to their lease and persons who allow others to share their quarters for a fee.
The public housing report, issued Monday, estimated that 40,000 persons reside illegally in the city's 11,769 public housing units. The report detailed the troubled history of public housing -- first under federal control and later under District control -- and described the Barry administration's efforts to modernize housing units and reduce the 16.2 percent vacancy rate.
The 40,000 figure, coupled with Barry's announcement that illegal residents would be evicted, immediately drew an uproar from critics who said the city would dump thousands onto the street with no housing. Barry moved quickly to disavow the figure as an error. In his remarks yesterday he reiterated that the number was "outrageous" and was seized upon by critics seeking to divert attention from the substance of his report.
Barry also defended a letter written by Madeline M. Petty, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, who earlier this month notified thousands of housing tenants that the department intends to crack down on scofflaws.
The letter was attacked by housing advocates and Mitch Snyder, an advocate for the homeless, as an insensitive assault on the rights of public housing residents. Snyder, saying that the letter failed to notify tenants of their rights of appeal, wrote his own letter demanding a retraction and apology.
Barry did neither yesterday, observing that "Mrs. Petty wrote a pretty tough letter. If you had been in housing as long as she has been in housing and were as frustrated as she has been frustrated with us trying to get our money . . . you might write that kind of letter, too."
As for Snyder, Barry alluded to a homeless shelter at 425 Second St. NW operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence, which is headed by Snyder, when he said, "Let Mitch Snyder take care of his problems on Second Street, we will take care of our problems in public housing."
The mayor also said he had written a letter to the office of the U.S. Marshals Service, offering to pay overtime for additional evictions that would be required under his proposal.
Jarvis observed that Barry's emphasis on lease enforcement is consistent with strong sentiments in the public housing community. "There is a thread within the public housing community itself that says, 'Make people be more responsive, make them pay rent, make them simply live up to their responsibility,' " she said.
The theme appeared to have wider implications in Barry's view. Citing a permanent underclass created by welfare dependence that is passed from generation to generation, he said, "If we don't turn this around -- particularly in the black community -- we are going to have nothing but chaos in the next 40 years."
For those who are willing to help themselves, Barry said, the government should stand ready with assistance. But he added, "There are some people in society that are so irresponsible, I am not sure government has any responsibility for them."
Florence Roisman, a lawyer with the National Housing Law Project, took exception to Barry's analysis of the problems in public housing here. The lease violations, she said, are a result of longstanding failures of enforcement; the real problem in public housing is the government's inability to maintain units and keep them filled.
"Where there is a failure of government policy, one thing you can do is correct the government policy and the other thing you can do is blame the victims," she said.