When Mayor Walter E. Washington appointed Lorenzo W. Jacobs Jr. housing director in 1975, City Council member Marion Barry was outraged. "It is a disaster," Barry said at the time. "We can look forward to more of the same housing mess which the executive has carried on for the last seven years."
And this year, when Marion Barry ran successfully against Washington for mayor, Lorenzo Jacobs was one of his favorite targets. Which city department heads would you remove if elected, Barry would be asked.
"Lorenzo Jacobs. Jacobs would certainly be at the head of the list," he would reply.
No city department received more failing grades for its performance than the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development during the recent mayoral campaign, and no other department head was more roundly attacked than Jacobs.
The problems his critics see can be neatly summed up in a sentence, Barry's close supporters have said: It is a failure of competency and compassion.
Charges of inefficiency and bungling have come from community groups, City Council members, high officials of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the General Accounting Office, the D.C. auditor and many others
The list of ills cited is long. The city has missed deadlines for applying for millions of dollars in federal housing funds. Other times, applications have been rejected because they were poorly prepared, federal officials say.
In 1976 HUD canceled the city's funding of a low-interest loan program for nine months because it was fraught with administrative problems.
During the last three years, the city has spent only 63 percent of its community development funds, according to HUD.
Two years ago the city housing department made it difficult for city residents to apply for federal rent subsidies by accepting applications only during the middle of the afternoon. The reason for that, Jacobs said at the time, was to discourage large numbers of people from applying.
Much of the criticism of Jacobs' department is born of frustration. People who live and do business in neighborhoods destroyed during the 1968 riots see their communities only slowly being rebuilt.
Builders with projects throughout the city complain of delays in getting permits. More than 7,000 families -- perhaps as many as 25,000 persons -- are on the waiting list for public housing. About 150,000 people in Washington pay more than they can really afford for housing and are likely to be displaced from their homes, according to a recent report by a task force Barry appointed to study the city's housing problems.
Marie C. Barksdale, a management consultant who cochaired Barry's housing task force, portrays Washington as a city facing a housing crisis -- a city without housing goals or policy.
"There are two reasons for the mess," Barksdale said."A lack of effective leadership and basic structural deficiencies."
When the city housing department was created in 1975 the urban renewal and public housing responsibilities were brought under the control of one city administrator for the first time. Currently there are more than 1,300 employes in the department.
In a rare interview recently, Jacobs talked about his administration. He defended his leadership as "creditable" and contended that the successes of the agency have outnumbered the failures.
"I've played a role in what I consider to be a developmdent boom -- both housing and commercial," Jacobs said. "We have not done everything at the fastest pace, and I am sure that some of that probably would be our fault. But for the most part, it's the fault of the obstacle course we must run to get things done."
As far as Jacobs is concerned, the figures paint a rosy picture. During 1975, he likes ot point out, fewer than 500 new housing units were constructed in Washington. Since he took over the directorship of the housing department, 1,300 housing units have either been fixed up or are under rehabilitation, and 3,233 units have been constructed or are under construction, he said. Many of those projects have been on the drawing board for years.
He acknowledged that many outside factors have contributed ot the city's booming housing and office construction picture now, but he believes his department has helped significantly in its job as a coordinator of projects.
Other achievements include helping to support neighborhood organizations, putting together loan and grant programs, programs for historic preservation and spurring neighborhood improvement in Anacostia, among other things, he said.
But still, the criticism has come fast and hard. How does the feel about it? "There's nothing I can do about it," he replied simply. "I would have preferred that some of the things wouldn't have happened, but I didn't lose any sleep over it."
Jacobs said he feels some of the criticism has been fair, adding, "A lot of it has not been (fair). A lot of it is born out of frustration, a need to have somebody to put blame on."
As for his future, Jacobs would only say, "I'm fluid. I'm keeping all the options open." His job, he said, has been an exciting one. "This isn't the kind of job one retires in," he added, chuckling. "I may have stayed too long."
A confidant of Mayor Mwashington said that throughout this year's mayoralty race, several of the mayor's close advisers, including City Councilman Douglas Moore and union leader William Lucy, suggested that Jacobs had become a "political albatross."
The source added, "If there was any visible symbol of inefficiency in Walter Washington's administration, it was Lorenzo Jacobs. The mayor agreed but he didn't want to deal with it until after the election. He didn't realize the depth of dissatisfaction."
The confidant also said it turned out that Jacobs may have made a crucial political mistake. "He should have recognized that boarded-up housing would be the main issue (in the campaign)," the souce said. "Instead, he had the mayor running around to groundbreakings."
Top city housing officials described Jacobs as a highly principled, nonpolitical, extremely honest man who cares about people but has a hard time articulating that feeling. He is reserved, they said, definitely not an outgoing, aggressive person, which may have contributed to his problems.
"Under a different director, the whole public perception of the department would be different. Ht housing program would be viewed as something worht being proud of. He didn't present the image of a department that was really hot stuff. He's not good at giving orders, and kicking a-to see that the work gets done. I wish he could have been more aggressive, even with us."
City Councilwoman Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6), who has headed the council's housing and urban development committee for the past four years, recalls that before she ran for office in 1974 she met with Jacobs to talk with him about her innovative housing ideas.
A long-time housing activist, Winter had visions of providing home-ownership using HUD funds and the help of prisoners and vocational school students. Whe wanted to buy whole blocks of boarded-up housing and make them usable. She wanted to convert old schools and warehouses to housing.
But during that meeting with Jacobs, Winter said it didn't take her long to sour on him. "I could see he was negative on everything," Winter said. "He had no background in housing, no sensitivity. I knew then that he shouldn't be the housing director. The biggest disservice to the city is not DHR (the Department of Human Resources), but the whole housing program."
Since that time, Winter said she has found Jacobs unresponsive to requests and not creative. "You ask him for a report, and you get a whole lot of charts with no substance," she said.
The new Barry administration is expecting support and help from HUD. Such support can benefit not only Washington, but also other cities, pointed out Herbert Franklin, a real estate lawyer and cochairman of Barry's housing task force.
"How can youd expect congressional support of urban programs," Franklin asked, "when congressmen in this area are treated to the spectacle of failure in the District?"
That attitude was echoed by HUD officials, who say they want to use the District as a model for successful housing programs.
"HUD has a good feeling about the new administration," said an assistant to HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris. "We have every intention of helping the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development become a success."
Past housing policy in Washington, he added, "has left a lot to be desired. The record speaks for itself. They need new leadership, and a reassessment of their mission. There's a lot of work to be done."
At the same time, however, one of the things the task force is suggesting is that the city try to lessen its almost total dependence on federal funds for its programs because some of those funds may not be available in the future. A way to provide more city funding should be sought, its report said.
The task force noted that one of the first things Barry can do, to create a quick and dramatic impact in the housing area, is to clean up the city's public housing performance. Some task force members toured projects recently, and said they found "pervasive" management problems.
"The District of Columbia is one of the worst landlords in town," Franklin said. "We need to set our own house in order first. There's no heat and hot water in the winter at some of these buildings, while at the same time $17 million of unobligated public housing modernization funds from the federal government go unused." HUD recently selected Washington and Detroit as the two cities it will use for public housing management pilot program.