THE 316 lower-income households that recently got eviction notices from the District's housing office -- followed by a "clarifying letter" saying they aren't really being evicted , even though they have to move -- are caught in a battle between the federal and city governments. On one side are officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who say that the District has violated federal regulations by allowing hundreds of people to live for years in dilapidated and "temporary" city-owned quarters (so called because the people are supposed to live in them for only one year while they await permanent housing). HUD officials also contend that the city has made little effort to provide adequate permanent housing into which these people can be relocated. As a result, the city risks losing about $26 million in housing-program money unless it quickly improves its relocation program.
In response, the District government sent out eviction notices, claiming that such action was the only way it could meet at least half of HUD's requirements. Local officials have since tried to make their position a little more appealing; they now say that, in the next six months, they can relocate more than 100 households and that, by next September, all 316 will have new homes that will meet the necessary standards and fulfill the other -- and more important -- half of HUD's requirements.
The District's revised response is unpersuasive, if not actually irresponsible. Housing officials themselves admit the obvious: There is a shortage of decent housing for lower-income households in this city. Elbert Ransom Jr., director of the District's relocation program, acknowledges that some of the units recommended by the city are not up to standard. Over the past few years, the city has had an abysmal record of relocation. There is just no evidence that decent permanent housing will be available in the next six months; to suggest otherwise is simply misleading.
Federal officials are not without fault in this instance. They have known for years that the city has been unable -- or unwilling -- to come up with an effective housing program. Only recently have they begun to pressure local officials to manage programs correctly, using the threat of a cut in funds. But it's a bit much to suppose that threatening a lame-duck administration with a cut in funds will get results.
The best hope for ending this impasse is for HUD and Marion Barry to work together on a solution just as soon as Mr. Barry is installed as mayor. If HUD would agree to make available the $26 million that the city needs for housing programs and salaries, Mr. Barry should be willing to give top priority to a plan of action setting forth the immediate housing tasks his administration will tackle in, let us say, its first six months. In the meantime, it should be agreed by all concerned that nobody is going to be thrown out of "temporary" housing, however substandard, until there is some permanent alternative that, at the very least, meets the city's own standards. Deadlines for some results could be made public. Marion Barry has pledged himself -- and his administration -- to improving housing for lower-income residents. HUD should give him a chance to do it.