Often we hear that the D.C. government employee residency requirement runs counter to basic American traditions of freedom. However, as the Supreme Court of New Jersey stated: "The question is not whether a man is free to live where he will. Rather, the question is whether he may live where he wishes and at the same time insist upon employment by {local} government."

D.C. government employees choose to work here. According to a recent survey of new hires by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, four-fifths (81 percent) held other jobs or rejected other job offers, including 86 percent of those who lived outside of D.C. These employees were not coerced into working for the D.C. government.

Sure, these new employees are opposed to the residency requirement by a slight majority (54 percent). Yet, 59 percent agreed that the requirement "gives D.C. employees a personal stake in the quality of life in the District," and 63 percent thought it "helps workers stay in closer touch with the people of the District." Moreover, 73 percent said "the requirement helps D.C. finances because people pay taxes and spend money where they live," and 79 percent said it "helps in providing jobs to D.C. residents."

In fact, a majority of the new employees (55 percent) believed it is "reasonable for the D.C. government to want to have a residency requirement." The executive branch of this government believes that the residency requirement is reasonable as well. And this opinion is shared by other cities; of 47 large cities responding to another survey, 32 have a residency requirement. They enacted their requirements for good reason: like the District, they were shouldering the vast majority of their region's socioeconomic burdens with an insufficient tax base.

In the District, we have been able to build our tax base by working with the private sector to revitalize downtown and several neighborhoods. However, such growth cannot pay the entire bill. It should be remembered that several large U.S. cities have a commuter tax, and that we are the only city prohibited by Congress from enacting this taxing authority. This denial costs us $812 million per year.

Therefore, we must turn to the residency requirement to help maintain the strength of our tax base and hold the line against further tax increases. Because of the residency requirement, nearly 14,000 more D.C. government employees and their families will live in D.C., instead of the suburbs, producing a $298 million annual addition to our city's income stream. We have to keep these jobs and income inside our borders. We are coping with more than 2 1/2 times our proportional share of the region's poverty population. With less than 20 percent of the region's population, we take care of a majority of the region's homeless and 74 percent of the region's public housing population. We can do all this, but not by subsidizing the suburbs at the same time.

Our residents need these D.C. government jobs, since our unemployment and underemployment rates are more than twice those of the suburbs. The number of jobs in the District has grown 13 percent since 1970, compared with 118 percent in the suburbs. Public sector jobs have grown four times faster in the suburbs than in D.C.

Yet the reasons for the residency requirement are not all economic. When Marion Barry, then a D.C. Council member, introduced the residency requirement 10 years ago, 62 percent of the higher level (GS-9 and above) employees lived in the suburbs, 78 percent of police officers lived out there and, amazingly, 92 percent of officers ranked lieutenant and above commuted in to police us. The local government was like any federal agency, without a D.C. feel and zeal. We should not retreat to those days.

Critics of the residency requirement focus on hardships imposed on public safety workers and ensuing morale problems. Yet, since the enactment of the residency requirement, the District has recorded the nation's third best crime-reduction rate among the top 20 cities. As increasing numbers of police officers and firefighters live in the city, our neighborhoods will become safer, and trained public safety personnel will be nearby in cases of citywide emergencies.

Yes, you can find a larger house in some of the suburbs for the same amount that it would cost you to live in the District. Nonetheless, 17 D.C. neighborhoods had an average home sales price under $100,000 in 1986, in such areas as Brookland, Takoma and the mayor's neighborhood of Hillcrest. The District's locally funded housing assistance programs are designed to help both middle- and lower-income families obtain affordable housing, and one of seven families assisted is a D.C. government employee household. The District, as an international capital of culture and commerce, has a high cost of living, but a home here is an excellent investment. A D.C. government job helps an employee to make this investment, since the job presumably has better earning potential than the other options the employee passed up to work here.

Finally, as Theodore Thornton, director of the D.C. Office of Personnel stated in his testimony before the D.C. Council, D.C. government employees are paid with citizen tax dollars. Our citizens, the real employers of the District government workers, deserve employees who have a stake in the quality of life in our neighborhoods. By living among us, employees share the concerns, interests and aspirations of the citizens of our city. They are committed to providing quality service to citizens who are also their neighbors.

With the help of the employee residency requirement, we not only have a D.C. government "for" the people, but "by" and "of" the people too. -- Edward M. Meyers is director of the District's Office of Policy.