The requirement that those employed by the city government live as well as work in the District of Columbia continues to be not only an ever present issue, but an emotional one as well.
The school board is studying the effect of this requirement on the hiring and retention of teachers. Some city employee unions have cautiously backed off from full support. The fire and police unions actively oppose the residency requirement.
The residency requirement, however, is an idea whose time has not run out -- not yet, at least. There are plenty of reasons to support it. It makes good economic sense. It buttresses our feeling of pride in the District as a place to live as well as work. It strengthens our racial pride. It helps to mitigate some fears.
Requiring a work force of nearly 40,000 moderately well-paid employees to live in the city maintains a solid tax-paying base, an important consideration inasmuch as congressional fiat prevents the District from imposing a tax on the income of commuters. Local pride dictates that our government should be run and operated by our own people, not outlanders whose political loyalties lie, at least in part, elsewhere.
Those who still vividly recall being shut out in the days of overt racism see the residency requirement as preventing the return of a dominant white power structure and protection of hard-won black political gains.
And there is fear that without the residency rule, public safety forces -- police and fire personnel -- might become unresponsive or be unempathetic to the needs of our primarily black and urban population.
Equally legitimate are problems created by the residency requirement. By limiting the pool of applicants for government jobs, the city cannot always hire the best and, at times, has not even had a sufficient number of qualified applicants. As a result, the D.C. Council has frequently found it necessary to legislate exceptions. Critics also argue that we are limited to a population that includes large numbers of undereducated, untrained and inexperienced workers.
The time has come to modify, but not eliminate, the residency rule. All the reasons to support it still have validity, but the rigidity of the rule is self-defeating.
We have the potential to train our own residents to meet the needs of the city government. We have the potential to create excellent schools in affordable neighborhoods. But we have not yet made the necessary commitment to meet this challenge.
Until we do -- until we obligate both the necessary funds and the necessary dedication and energy to create this kind of environment, I argue that we discontinue our residency requirement and establish a residency preference.
We should give city residents an advantage when competing for jobs with non-residents, much the way veterans are given a preference over non-veterans when applying for federal civil service jobs. All other factors being more or less equal, the city resident should get the job.
In this way, we can protect the rights of District residents to jobs with the city government without shutting out qualified suburbanites for those positions not filled by those who live in the District. There is currently legislation before the council, sponsored by council member Hilda Mason and cosponsored by me, to do just this. It should be considered quickly and enacted in order to address staffing challenges.
Jim Nathanson is a D.C. Council member from Ward 3.