Fifteen minutes from the U.S. Capitol, on a long hill in a troubled part of Southeast Washington, the most ambitious public housing makeover ever attempted in the District is almost complete. When it opens later this year, the Wheeler Creek development will represent a triumph over years of near-total government neglect.
Here, public housing tenants and middle-class families will live side by side in a mixture of rental units and owner-occupied, single-family homes in a neighborhood that easily could have been lifted wholesale from affluent sections of Fairfax, Montgomery or Prince George's counties.
The transformation is stunning. In 1995, when I began covering the District's deeply troubled public housing agency as The Post's city hall reporter, the infamous complex then known as Valley Green was a 20-acre wasteland of rutted streets, abandoned buildings and desolate concrete courtyards along Wheeler Road. Eight families were hunkered down in the single building--out of 35--that hadn't been vacated: They were keeping the doors and windows boarded up until some kind of help arrived.
Today, with handsome Georgian-style town houses lining the road and young families touring model homes, Wheeler Creek stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of David I. Gilmore's highly successful five-year reign as the District's public housing receiver.
The numbers only begin to tell the story.
When D.C. Superior Court Judge Steffen W. Graae threw up his hands in disgust and appointed Gilmore receiver in 1994, 2,000 units--20 percent of the city's public housing stock--had been so poorly maintained over the years that they were uninhabitable.
At the time, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development graded housing authorities across the country, using such indicators as vacancy rates and percentage of rent collected. A perfect score was 100, and a passing grade was 60. The District's rating was 22.38, among the lowest in the nation.
HUD has since changed its rating system. But using the old indicators, Gilmore's D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) today would have a score of 83, placing it squarely among the top big-city performers. The system's vacancy rate has plummeted from 17 percent when Gilmore began work in 1995 to 2 percent today; the total rent due that is actually collected has surged from 80 percent to 98 percent, and apartments that were formerly inspected an average of once every four years are now inspected three times a year.
What's more, Gilmore has so successfully woven some of the District's worst public housing slums back into the cityscape that it is now often hard to tell where the "projects" begin and end.
What makes his work all the more remarkable is the fact that he accomplished it while court-ordered receiverships of the city's foster care and mental health services foundered, as did the D.C. financial control board's takeover of the city's public schools.
Why did Gilmore succeed when the others failed? The answers, I believe, are instructive for anyone interested in government reform--especially those managers, policy analysts, plaintiffs, lawyers and judges across America who find themselves confronted by government agencies so broken that receivership seems the only way out.
For starters, Gilmore took control of an agency that was wholly funded by HUD and thus easily separated from the District's government--which by 1995 was so dysfunctional that Congress created the control board to run everything that hadn't already been taken over by the courts.
The whole concept of receivership is predicated upon the belief that an ailing agency must be temporarily carved out of its political environment if it is to be saved. And in Washington, at least, the only agency for which that was completely possible was the DCHA. All the other agencies in receivership were funded by the city and thus entangled in a bureaucracy that couldn't pay its bills and wouldn't stop interfering.
Gilmore insisted upon absolute authority as a condition of employment, and he got it.
Another key factor in Gilmore's success was this: Graae had appointed a proven public housing reformer to reform public housing.
This might sound like an obvious move. But the receivership of the city's foster care system flopped when U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan turned it over to an author and expert in youth detention, Jerome Miller, who was at the time running a small liberal policy center in Alexandria.
And the mental health receivership accomplished little after U.S. District Judge Aubrey Robinson handed the system to a psychiatrist then overseeing federal mental health services on Indian reservations. The psychiatrist, Scott Nelson, had never run a big-city agency.
Then there was public school reform. The courts weren't involved, but the control board conferred receiver-like authority on a retired U.S. Army general, Julius W. Becton Jr., even though he had no experience whatsoever running an urban public school system. He lasted 17 months, got little done and resigned in "exhaustion."
This isn't to say skilled managers in one arena won't sometimes succeed in another. But Miller, Nelson and Becton, fine men all, were unprepared for the tasks at hand.
Which brings us to Gilmore. Besides a deep commitment to poor people and a fierce drive for reform, he brought to Washington the experience of a lifetime spent in the field of public housing, specializing in dramatic turnarounds.
"This is what he does, fix broken housing," Graae once told me, explaining his choice.
A child of Brooklyn and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Gilmore cut his teeth at the Philadelphia Housing Authority and came of age working for a court-appointed public housing receiver in Boston. In 1989, San Francisco hired him to get the city's housing authority off HUD's troubled list. Four years later, mission accomplished, Gilmore ended up in blissful Seattle, where he saw firsthand an example of how well-managed public housing could become a glittering city asset.
It didn't take Gilmore long to get bored in Seattle. He longed for a challenge like Washington--where turning around dilapidated projects a stone's throw from the Capitol would show Congress that public housing could, indeed, be saved.
One of my first memories of Gilmore is from the hot, muggy summer of 1995, days after his arrival. At the housing authority's headquarters on North Capitol Street, Gilmore gathered 10 top maintenance officials around a conference table to talk about, of all things, fixing heaters. Heat was Gilmore's highest priority. He knew that it might be sweltering then--but come winter, he would be judged by whether he could provide this most basic necessity. The 14 housing directors who preceded him in the previous 17 years hadn't been able to do it for nearly enough of the city's 24,000 public housing tenants.
"I have put my neck out a mile," he told his lieutenants, "so I'm telling you all right now, unequivocally, that I have announced that one of my earliest tests of this receivership is whether I can deliver on this commitment. And I don't fail tests. So in order for me not to fail, you can't fail."
If there's one quality most responsible for Gilmore's success, I believe, it is this: absolute impatience for change.
Gilmore wasn't shy when it came to ordering people around. He often drove even his most loyal employees close to the breaking point and made no excuses for being a tyrant.
But even a public housing dictator, Gilmore realized, has to be accountable to somebody--and he chose that somebody to be the tenants. He began presiding at biweekly receiver's meetings that often resembled "The Jerry Springer Show." Tenants stepped up to open microphones and complained, often loudly. And Gilmore demanded answers from his staff, on the spot.
Once, when a woman suffering from the flu complained about having no heat over a long holiday weekend, Gilmore recessed the meeting and fired the maintenance official responsible. It was harsh, but it made the point: Tenants mattered.
In early 1997, I put Gilmore to a small test. I asked him if he would be willing to accompany me to any public housing development I chose so I could see for myself what conditions were like, in a setting unprepared by him or his staff.
He agreed. I told him we would start by walking right across North Capitol Street from housing authority headquarters to a faded high-rise called Sibley Plaza. Fine, he said.
When we arrived, the place was teeming with workmen and was managed by private-sector contractors, part of a project Gilmore had launched to see how his own in-house managers compared with those in the commercial market.
During our tour, Claudia McNair, a 76-year-old resident, joyously complained about having "too much heat." But Gilmore was clearly bored by the development I'd chosen. All was well at Sibley.
"I want to show you the most notorious public housing in terms of drugs and crime," he said, hopping into his SUV and taking me to Greenleaf Gardens in Southwest, where neighborhood drug dealers still ruled the streets. They hadn't yet noted Gilmore's reform agenda. But they would, soon enough, after Gilmore formed his own police force and, for the first time, started evicting tenants whose units were epicenters for drug sales.
Gilmore's greatest success came on the other side of town, near the Prince George's County line in Northeast, at Benning Terrace. When Gilmore first arrived in Washington, Benning Terrace was a free-fire zone terrorized by warring crews from a gang called Simple City. The Circle crew controlled half the complex, and the Avenue crew controlled the other.
The development's housing units were heavily vandalized and half of them were vacant; the residents hardly dared to come out of their homes night or day, fearing for their lives. The power lines were already festooned with sneakers in memory of Benning Terrace kids gunned down in the courtyard. The sense of crisis came to a head in 1997 when a 12-year-old boy was abducted and shot to death on his way home from school.
After the Alliance of Concerned Men and activist Robert Woodson brokered a truce between the crews, Gilmore offered the gang members a chance to trade in their guns for blue DCHA work clothes. And the unbelievable happened: The gang members, written off as "godless, valueless and worthless," in Woodson's words, took the deal. Who would have thought that all it took to reach some of these gang bangers was steady work and $6.50 an hour? So began a six-month, $200,000 jobs program for 30 former gang members, most of whom work for Gilmore to this day.
When Graae and Gilmore took an inaugural tour of the projects back in the summer of 1995, their driver wouldn't even turn into Benning Terrace. He was afraid. But when the judge and the receiver retraced their steps on a victory lap earlier this month, Benning Terrace was a neighborhood transformed.
Little kids rode bikes down streets. Old folks sat out on lawn chairs, their apartments freshly painted inside and out. Flowers bloomed and formerly barren side lots were covered in rich green sod, much of it laid by housing authority landscape crews made up almost exclusively of former gang members.
"It's been three and a half years, and there hasn't been a single gang-related death in this neighborhood," Gilmore said. "It's a stunning accomplishment--and its effect has rippled. Welcome to Benning Terrace. It's a new world."
In the final analysis, I believe Gilmore's receivership succeeded because he was more than a housing expert. Certainly he knew bricks and mortar. But more importantly, he knew that fixing up a lot of apartment units and rebuilding some neighborhoods from scratch wouldn't be worth much if he couldn't create an atmosphere that enabled the people who lived in them to flourish.
Maybe that's why Graae broke down and wept at a final hearing on the public housing receivership two months ago, when Gilmore reported that he was nearly finished with his work and ready to hand a healed agency back to the city. Graae has ordered the receivership ended as of Sept. 15.
"He was the perfect guy," Graae said. "It took me about five minutes to realize that he would be fantastic. I liked the way he talked about tenants, the residents--what it was all about. I just liked his whole orientation--that we have a simple job to do, provide decent housing for the people we're serving."
As a journalist, I learned from Gilmore's story that covering transformation can be as exciting as uncovering scandal, and a lot more uplifting. I don't pretend Gilmore is perfect. And I'm not the least bit convinced that court-appointed receiverships are the best way to turn around failing government agencies. But it worked in Gilmore's case, and the District is better off for it.
My one regret is that he was only the public housing receiver. Imagine what might have happened if, somewhere along the line, they'd made him city administrator, too.
Vernon Loeb covers national security affairs for The Washington Post.