WHAT ARE WE to make of the series of articles in this newspaper alleging that some officer of P.U. Properties -- an offshoot of the Pride organization -- stole "at least $600,000" from low-income tenants and from government funds meant to help poor black? Unfortunately, if predictably, some lines of response are already discernible; and three of these deserve comment solely for the fact that they are so misguided.
First, it is being suggested by some that the stories constitute a "racist" attack on a black organization that tried to help poor black people. Whites (this argument runs) have committed corporate fraud without its having been spread across the top of the front page for four straight days. But this is not just the defense of people with short memories for scandal in all colors. It is also a scoundrel's defense that ignores the central and glaring charges of a crime in order to focus on how true charges came to public attention. The real shame here is that, through fake loans, fraud and various schemes, people may have been cheated out of the decent housing government aid meant to give them. Clifton Terrace has remained a terrible slum, complete with rats, exposed wires and regular shut-offs of heat and electricity -- for years. For the mostly black population that lives there, this has been an objective, inescapable fact. If the money intended to help them went for a Jamaica vacation, a sports car or other luxury items, as the articles allege, then that is thievery, pure and simple.
Then there is the equally expectable -- and equally flawed -- view that the series' message is this: the poor have perpetrated another welfare-fraud type of ripoff with the taxpayers' money. There is the temptation to use the articles as justification for public sentiment and political decisions that point away from allocating time and money to programs for the poor. In a time of inflation, when tax-reduction plans to limit government spending abound, that temptation is clearly strong -- but it should be resisted. The articles, after all, did not say that the poor have left Washington's inner city bound for Caribbean vacations. The victims of the shortchanging should not be made victims twice.
Finally, there has been the beginning of a whisper on the part of some national leaders, congressmen and senators that all this is proof that Washingtonians can't handle their own business. The illogical conclusion is that Washingtonians are not capable of governing themselves and thus should not be beneficiaries of the voting rights amendment. This could only occur to someone looking for reasons to deny the people of this city the right to proper representation in the national government. Does anyone want to revoke Maryland's right to statehood because of the scandals that have occurred there? How about Texas and New Jersey?
As these statements and charges and countercharges resound in the coming days, it is important that the city and the country as a whole not lose sight of a major goal of programs such as Clifton Terrace while inspecting one apparently very bad apple. That goal is better housing for the poor. Sloppiness by officials giving out government support and allegations of thievery against officials of P.I. Properties do not remove the local and federal government's responsibility to work to provide a decent place to live for the poor. If every allegation against P.I. Properties should turn out to be true, there will still be no reason for government officials and public opinion to move toward taking funds away from programs for the poor. The exploiters and thieves will already have done that once. What the P.I. Properties stories do offer justification for is much closer attention to audits and contracts by the government so that it won't take the morning paper to tell government officials that the money is not getting through to people who need it.