Four years ago, candidate Marion Barry promised to take the boards off city-owned dwellings in the District of Columbia, where affordable housing was scarce. Mayor Marion Barry has taken off many of those boards, though not to the degree he trumpets in his reelection campaign.
Four years ago, Barry said he would improve public housing here by renovating deteriorating buildings, instilling pride in their residents and being responsive to the tenants' needs. Mayor Barry has won the praise of the city's foremost public housing activist, but many project residents say that in most respects, conditions in the projects have not changed.
Four years ago, the candidate vowed to help make homeowners of the thousands of low- and moderate-income renters in danger of being displaced by condominium conversions. Many of those he promised to assist are still waiting.
Symbolically, even the Bates Street redevelopment project, where Barry stood among the rows of Victorian buildings on July 13, 1978, and proclaimed a major theme of his campaign--"I pledge to get the boards off the houses like you see here on Bates Street and have them made livable and put people back into them"--has foundered.
"It's important that it was started," he now says of that project, later adding, "Just because Bates Street is about two-thirds of where we ought to be at this point does not mean we have not been successful."
Gone now is the sweeping rhetoric, the sharp condemnation of bureaucratic bungling, red tape and insufficient funds as poor excuses for poor performance. Gone as well are the precise promises on housing that marked Barry's upbeat, can-do transition to power.
Now Barry, who said housing and jobs would be top priority in his administration, asks to be judged by more practical standards. He allows that he has fallen short of his promises, but still says his performance warrants a second term in office.
"I feel very good about our housing program," Barry said in a recent interview. "It hasn't gone well everywhere; of course not. There are some schedules that are behind; of course they are. But overall, we have an outstanding record for housing production in this city compared to any city I know in the country."
Robert L. Moore, the housing director Barry imported from Houston, also is pleased. "I think this is one of the best housing programs in the country," Moore said. "We were under attack, under siege. I don't think people are satisfied, but by and large people tell you there is a substantive change."
Outside Barry's cabinet, the reviews are different, often mixed.
"I think in the housing area, because a lot of stuff was in the pipeline and because Bob Moore tends to be a courageous decision maker, things have gone well," said James G. Banks, executive director of the Washington Metropolitan Board of Realtors. "There are a lot of things yet undone, but overall, Mr. Barry's administration has done well."
Banks sees one glaring exception: "There hasn't been any improvement in public housing," he said, referring to the 12,000-unit city-run projects where Barry is landlord to 10 percent of Washington's population. Others agree.
Odell Morgan of the Syphax Gardens projects near 1st and P streets SW says that for six months last year she stored her meat in a neighbor's refrigerator while awaiting a replacement for her own, which had broken down.
No Hot Water
Carmen Smith, who lives in the Benning Terrace projects near 46th and G streets SE, says she attended meetings where Barry administration officials promised renovations and better maintenance. There still are no doors on some buildings in her project, many smoke detectors don't work, and often tenants have gone without hot water. "Things are the same," she says.
And at the People's Co-op on Elvans Road SE near Suitland Parkway, where tenants threatened by displacement bought their rundown 67-unit apartment building in 1979 but had to wait more than two years for the city to arrange permanent financing, tenant president Barbara Valentine gives Barry the benefit of the doubt.
"I don't think they ever forgot about us," she said. "But it was a matter of fitting us in, and if something happened, we got tabled."
Barry's record in housing is at once one of the easiest and most difficult to measure. It is a record that has unfolded at a time that the housing industry nationwide has been ravaged by skyrocketing interest rates and, just this year, federal cutbacks in assistance for low-income housing.
Nine months into his administration, Barry unveiled plans to rehabilitate 3,095 existing homes and apartments that were boarded up or in serious need of repair, and, with the help of nonprofit sponsors, to build another 3,117 new units for low- and middle-income families.
He gave street addresses and projected completion dates for most of the units. Work on all 6,212 was to have begun by now and nearly all were to have been completed.
Three other major renovation projects totaling 593 units and two construction projects totaling 305 units were also scheduled, but not included in the list. The total comes to 7,110 units--3,688 renovations and 3,422 newly built units.
And in an effort to make good on his promise, between 1979 and 1982, as overall city spending merely kept pace with the 22 percent rate of inflation, Barry increased the budget of the city's housing department by 136 percent, to $15.8 million.
Today, Barry claims that 6,688 units have been produced, nearly all that had been promised, and late yesterday, after a month of inquiries, the housing department released a list of the addresses.
A Washington Post reporter and a staff researcher late last month visited 435 of the 500 addresses listed in the housing plans released in September 1979, failing to visit only 65 single-family sites. The five sites not listed also were visited.
Exactly 1,908, or 52 percent, of the 3,688 rehabilitated units had been completed. The boards were still on the remaining 1,780. All 65 addresses not visited were counted as complete.
Of the 3,422 new units to be built, 2,702 were completed (more than 2,000 of them by nonprofit groups), for a grand total of 4,610 units--2,078 less than claimed by the mayor, 2,500 less than the 7,110 promised.
About 1,500 of the units constructed by nonprofit groups had received building permits before Barry took office on Jan. 2, 1979, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and many of the units were built with no funds from the city government.
Still, they are an integral part of those for which the administration takes credit. "To get a reservation of funds from the federal government is no work. The hard work is to get them out," said Moore. "I put blood in those suckers."
Among the completed projects, Barry and Moore point with pride to the 150-unit Delta Towers high-rise near the long-neglected and riot-scarred H Street NE corridor. Classrooms in the old Shaw Junior High School on Rhode Island Avenue NW are being renovated as apartments for the elderly, and Wah Luk House, the first subsidized housing project in Chinatown, is being built near 6th and H streets NW. All are being developed by nonprofit groups.
Two new mixed-income housing projects with a total of nearly 1,000 units are still on the drawing boards, however.
Community opposition to a proposed shopping area has delayed the 400-unit Knox Hill complex near 28th Street and Alabama Avenue SE. Work on the Parkside complex along Kenilworth Avenue NE has been hampered by high interest rates and the fact that its developers are the same group that has been unable to complete the troubled Bates Street project near North Capitol and Q streets.
The generally high marks Barry gets for taking boards off city-owned houses and helping to produce new units are not echoed in Washington's 52 public housing projects, which by many accounts is the housing of last resort for the city's poor.
Soon after he took office, Barry published a series of goals for his housing program. The first goal in the section on public housing was "to complete the modernization of all public housing properties and maintain them in standard condition."
So far, only one project, the 267-unit James Creek project overlooking the freeway in Southwest, is undergoing complete renovation at a cost of $10.9 million in federal funds. The 40-year-old project is being outfitted with completely new interiors and bay windows on the outside.
The only other improvements in city housing projects include new doors and windows at four projects and new gas lines and heating system components at several others.
On April 16, 1981, Barry heralded the selection of eight public housing residents as the first beneficiaries of his effort to fulfill a promise to help lower income tenants become homeowners. Yet the city has never fixed up the boarded-up houses the eight were to live in.
Moore says work on the units, seven of which are in Anacostia and Congress Heights, has been delayed because the renovation required is more extensive than originally anticipated.
Barry agrees that more should have been done in public housing. "The department has spent so much time on brush fires," he said. "The question is what do you do in three years?"
Moore explained, "It didn't get that way in three years and it will not change in three years."
"You are operating a city within a city," he said. "You are talking about 70,000 people. You have a system that has been neglected for 20 years . . . You can go out there and play games with people and slap up some paint and make it look good" but that is not a substantive change.
Moore should know. Last fall, he and Barry helped residents paint the hallways at 1200 Delaware Ave. SW., a high-rise building that is reputed to be one of the city's worst. At the time of the paint-up, 27 families on the top floor were being moved out because of a leaking roof.
Late last month, the roof was still leaking and the six or seven families that remained on the eighth floor, mostly women with small children, traveled down unlighted hallways lined with vacant apartments with open doors. There have been fires, and often the elevator is out of order, some of the tenants say.
Public housing administrator Sidney Glee said the city has spent nearly $40 million in local and federal funds during the last 3 1/2 years to improve public housing, most of it for renovations at James Creek, a senior citizens building at 601 L St. SE, and for the gas line and heating system repairs at other projects.
"A lot of the above-ground things you see that are in bad shape , we have not had the resources to address properly. You're talking about a need of a couple of hundred million dollars out there," Glee said.
The Barry administration's performance in public housing is highly praised by Kimi Gray of Kenilworth Courts in Northeast, who is president of the board of tenants that advises the mayor on public housing issues.
Gray did not support Barry four years ago but says she does now. "I think Marion has done more for us than any other mayor even though we've only had two. All his commitments he has made to us he kept," she says.
She points to the renovation of James Creek, Barry's plan to spend $91.4 million between 1982 and 1987 to fix up 11 public housing projects and, she says, a substantial reduction in heating complaints last winter because of better maintenance in some projects.
Gray also cites the city's first experiment in having tenants manage their own project, an experiment that is taking place at Kenilworth Courts, where she lives. She is the head of the tenant corporation that was awarded the management contract.
A third major pledge of Barry's campaign was to help low-income tenants threatened by displacement to become homeowners when their buildings were put up for sale by landlords frustrated by rising utility and fuel oil costs or simply hoping to cash in on a once-booming condominium market.
During Barry's first 3 1/2 years in office, the city provided down payment assistance and other seed money totaling $7.8 million to 36 tenant groups trying to purchase their buildings. More than 1,960 units were involved, according to the city housing department, and tenants in another 1,400 units were given technical assistance.
Yet, only 10 of the 36 tenant groups given seed money have been able to secure permanent financing, and eight of those have completed renovations.
High Interest Rates
Moore says that for the others, the basic problem is high interest rates. "I can finance every co-op that we have if the tenants could afford to pay the market [interest] rate," he said. "Some of them have to sit in bad condition for a while," he said of the tenants, "but they are not being displaced."
"Barry has a good idea, but how do you solve the problem" of financing, said Virginia Evans, president of the tenants group at the 12-unit First Hope Cooperative, 1815 D St. NE, where for two years, tenants have been searching for $304,000 needed for permanent financing and renovations. "I don't think we can stand another winter without new apartments."
A similar tenant effort now having problems is the 84-unit Kenesaw apartments at 3060 16th St. NW.
The city stopped work on the building in November 1980 when Moore got into a spat with the quasipublic D.C. Development Corporation, which owned the building on behalf of the tenants and was managing the renovation effort. Half the apartments were finished and $1 million in city funds had been spent. The work has never resumed.
Randy Keesler, a tenant and secretary of the board of directors, said the seven-story building has been without hot water, an elevator and central heat for two years, although the city has supplied the 32 families in the building with space heaters.
"The sign out front says the mayor is taking off the boards and it is four years and the boards have not come off," Keesler said.
Moore said the city will spend another $2 million correcting some of the earlier work and completing the remainder of the building. The tenants will be charged for the additional work, he said.
Ironically, Barry's stewardship may have had only a limited effect on housing in Washington. Displacement has slowed, due largely, housing experts say, to high interest rates that have put the brakes on speculation and condominium conversions.
The vacancy rate for privately owned rental housing in Washington is about 5 percent, compared to 3 percent when Barry became mayor. The waiting list to get in public housing includes 8,000 names and the wait is about five years--the same as when Barry took over.
Washington is still an attractive city for the well-off, one of the few havens for the poor and near-poor in the metropolitan area and increasingly unaffordable to many in the middle class, who continue to head for the suburbs, where, among other things, taxes are lower and houses are larger and cheaper.
And Marion Barry says he has fulfilled his campaign commitments in housing.
"Looking at all the restraints and all the unforeseen problems, such as Reagan's election," he said, "we have far exceeded my campaign promises in production, public housing and making it possible to help some moderate-income families become homeowners. CAPTION: Picture 1, PROMISE: Renovate public housing, respond to tenants's needs: The home at 1007 Savannah St. SE is one of eight that Barry promised in April 1981 would be renovated and sold to public housing tenants who could afford to buy them. None of the homes has been fixed. although the city said that they would be completed by October 1981. By Sharon Farmer for The Washington Post; Picture 2, PROMISE: Take the boards off dwellings owned by the District of Columbia: On July 13, 1978, Barry stood on Bates Street NW and pledged to make its houses livable and "to put people back into them." Today, he says of the goal: "Just because (it) is about two-thirds of where we ought to be...does not mean we have not been successful."; Picture 3, PROMISE: Help renters threatened by displacement to become owners: The City's rehabilitation effort at Kensaw Aapartments on 16th St. NW has been in limbo since November 1980, after about $1 million in city funds was spent and about half the apartments redone. Officials say that the city will spend $2 million more to finish the work. Photos by James A. Parcell--The Washington Post