In an unprecedented move, city housing officials have devised a plan that would let some residents of Southeast Washington screen prospective tenants of a small apartment building in their neighborhood that will be used for public housing.
The plan would set up a six-member panel, including three neighborhood residents that would select the tenants of the building, which is about three blocks from Mayor Marion Barry's home.
The panel would be given personal information about the prospective tenants, such as income and family size.
In addition, the three nonresident panel members -- two housing department staff members and a public housing resident -- will visit applicants' homes, interview them and check for cleanliness and good housekeeping habits, according to Sidney Glee, director of the housing department's public housing administration.
The city's purchase two weeks ago of the 20-unit building at 3810 Southern Ave. SE has touched off opposition from the nearby black middle-class homeowners. Barry says he favors having the public housing in the neighborhood.
The screening program was designed at least in part to placate the concerned citizens, who say they fear that the arrival of public housing in their neighborhood will increase crime and lower their property values.
City housing officials say that the identities of applicants will not be divulged to citizen members of the panel.
Most of the tenants of the building will be single working mothers who earn more than the average public housing resident, Glee said. The average family now receives less than $400 a month in income and almost half live solely from welfare payments, housing officials said.
Most of the new families will include one or two children, Glee said.
The purchase of the building was the first step in a new city program to purchase a series of small apartment buildings around the city for public housing. There currently are almost 12,000 units of public housing in the District, most of which are located either in seedy-looking high-rise buildings or in large, barracks-like buildings scattered over several acres.
A representative for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said she knew of no other jurisdiction that allowed citizens a voice in the selection of public housing tenants.
The three neighborhood representatives will come from Fairfax Village, which is adjacent to the apartment building, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) and the Fort Davis Improvement Association.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Robert Whiting, a resident of nearby Fairfax Village, said much of the citizen opposition and apprehension was rooted in public housing's reputation for unsightliness and its threat to property values.
"People are afraid that it will affect their property values, the city will not maintain it, that the grass will be in disarray" and that it will bring an influx of children who will harass homeowners and destroy property, Whiting said.
Fairfax Village is a quiet and pleasant community of 836 two-story condominium units sprawling over several acres. The residents are predominantly young black middle-class professionals, many of whom are first-time homeowners.
Rosemarie Savoy, who can see the apartment building from her front door and has organized residents to obtain more information about it, said she was "just raging" when she first heard of the city's plan.
She said she and other residents had suggested to city officials that the elderly and handicapped be housed in the building because "we saw no threat to our property values going down or to the property going down."
Savoy said that although she does not oppose public housing, she wants to make sure the city keeps its promises to let residents help select tenants for the building and then to maintain it.
Three weeks ago at an ANC meeting several Fairfax Village residents, protesting the public housing, told Glee they feared the building would become overcrowded and increase crime in their neighborhood, which has had an outbreak of purse snatchings and burglaries.
"They were really hostile, really concerned about having a public housing project next door," Whiting said.
Barry, who lives three blocks away at 3607 Suitland Rd., said he was "pleased that the building is in my neighborhood. I wouldn't mind if it was next door."
Barry, speaking through a spokesman, said he was aware of neighborhood resistance and concern and called it "unfortunate."
"I think we have to move to the point of not relagating poor people to the concentration camp kind of environment where people are just lumped on top of one another," the mayor said.
Glee said that while he understands citizen concerns the city has a list of 5,199 persons and families who need public housing. The city is determined not to concentrate any more people in large public housing projects that have become spawning grounds for crime, drug addiction and illegitimate children.
To break that cycle of "hopelessness and feeling of apartness" for the rest of the community, Glee said, the city's new policy of "scattered site" public housing will "let people be a part of the community to blend into the community."
The new residents will move into a building of one- and two-bedroom apartments that are fully carpeted and air-conditioned, and some of which include dishwashers.
The District bought the building from developer David Clark and Associates April 9 for $814,000, according to city records.
Clark purchased the building in July for $340,000, renovated it for sale as condominiums but then decided to sell to the city at the request of housing officials.