Ten years of home rule hasn't made a whole lot of difference in the housing conditions for Washington's poor. They are still being chased from downtown, away from the center of business and commercial development into housing built toward the end of the Second World War, housing that bears the battle scars of urban warfare. And when they move in, they root in forever and resist moving away from what is supposed to be temporary housing (but is not) for people facing temporary difficulties (which are not).
Neither of the city's two elective mayors has been able to dent the problem noticeably. Walter Washington, before becoming the city's appointed and later first elected mayor, directed both the District's and New York City's housing agencies. As mayor, he continued to support urban renewal programs that relocated thousands of families to the outer edges of the city.
Marion Barry has seemed just as puzzled about housing policies while thousands of low-income families are being misplaced by the government and private regentrification efforts. But the mayor, determined to improve his record by the next election in 1986, continues to work on housing policies.
Little new housing has been built for the poor, however, though millions of federal and local dollars are being spent to renovate existing two-story, walk-up, single- family public housing projects that have undergone many renovations since my childhood. The city has emptied and sealed off practically all of its high-rise buildings, with no visible signs of protest.
Work is finally beginning on Barry Farms, one of the city's oldest, largest and most troubled housing projects. It is isolated in Ward 8, an area which needs the most help but has received the least. Elsewhere, the first phase of the Lincoln Heights Projects is completed -- 86 out of 440 units. It, too, is isolated -- on the outer edge of Far Northeast in Ward 7, considered the city's second-most trouble-plagued area. This location was considered for a pilot enterprise zone by the Reagan administration, but the city's Democratic hierarchy was unreceptive. Work has also begun on Benning Terrace in Far Southeast -- 274 units. Most of the units there have three to five bedrooms to house large families.
The mayor has had two clear successes -- James Creek in Southwest, 239 units, and East Capitol Street Dwellings in far Northeast, 577 units -- both opened during his second term. These dwellings have been renovated into townhouses at a cost of $40,000 to $50,000 each and are of similar quality (materials and workmanship) to houses sold on the open market for $100,000. All of the systems -- plumbing, wiring, heating, appliances and fixtures -- are new. The grounds have also been landscaped to create pleasant exterior surroundings.
But both developments were in the news recently for showing signs of maintenance problems. Deterioration is setting in as tenants complain about the workmanship. But it is the hands of children that are punching holes and scribbling on walls and swinging from the sides of screen doors. (I counted a dozen busted screen doors in a recent week.)
In fact, citizens are no longer so sure that there need to be innovative housing programs so much as strong measures against families that abuse their newly renovated dwellings.
Managers of public housing buildings too often have extended a long arm of protection to families that use the old ploy, "It's not our fault." Local taxpayers are beginning to resist this explanation; they want more responsibility placed on the adult members of the problem households, a position advocated by D.C. Councilman H. R. Crawford of Ward 7.
Before the situation gets worse -- and it well might -- management should move swiftly against occupants of newly renovated public housing who show the slightest signs of callousness toward the care of their homes. When managers look the other way, as many do, deterioration sets in: broken windows, graffiti, littered walkways, and hundreds of families who have no alternative to remaining in what ultimately becomes slum housing.
Before home rule, Washingtonians accused the commissioners and the House District Committee of looking the other way and not caring about unhealthy conditions in public housing projects. These conditions will not change, however, unless protection is shifted to families that follow standards of maintenance -- and away from those that don't.