After serving as the District’s chief financial officer in 1996, and two-term mayor from 1999 to 2007, Anthony Williams was widely credited with unleashing the market forces that gave rise to a new, revitalized Washington. Now, 20 years after it all began, he basks in the glow of a vision realized.
“I like the walkability of the city, being able to walk wherever I want,” said Williams, who lives in a condominium on H Street NE, in a newly renovated part of town called NoMa. Buildings that had been deteriorating since the riots in 1968 are now bustling shops and restaurants.
“With the building height limitations, you get lots of sunlight,” Williams said. “That’s what I like best.”
Despite his successes as a public official, however, Williams continues to wrestle with a vexing problem after more than a decade in private life.
“We have to keep the city growing, but we have challenges in terms of making the city more inclusive, increasing affordable housing and improving social services,” he said. “I think that left unattended, if we have no intervention with good public policy, this city will end up like a European city, and everybody in the city will be doing fine while people in the inner ring are hurting.”
But that raised a question: Do D.C. residents really care if the city ends up with the poorest people pushed out to make way for more microbreweries and fresh-baked bread shops? And if they did care, why had the problem remained “unattended” to after decades of gentrification?
I was interviewing Williams at the offices of the Federal City Council, where he has served as chief executive and executive director since 2012. The organization, composed mostly of influential members of the business community, has worked as a behind-the-scenes player in local government.
With the business community profiting immensely from the city’s economic boom, the council had ramped up plans to give something back. According to Williams, among the latest efforts was the creation of a “social impact and housing affordability” fund that would raise “a couple of hundred million” dollars to help the District meet the challenges. That means providing job training and affordable housing before the city’s economic gap grows even wider.
“This group, they get it,” he added. “One of our largest meetings has been about this.”
During his years as mayor, Williams thought his economic development plan would lift up the poor, not drive them out of the city.
“I thought the A-number one thing to do was to create a climate where people were willing to reinvest in D.C.,” he said. “Once you create a flow of investment, you start solving financial problems. But first you have to improve the operation of the place, and then you can start creating a cycle of prosperity.”
He noted that the city has had 20 balanced budgets in a row and won the respect of Wall Street.
Among city officials in the late 1990s, Williams stood out for his understanding of accounting practices and management. He had degrees from Yale and Harvard and had served as the first chief financial officer of the 100,000-employee U.S. Agriculture Department.
In 2003, at the end of his first term as D.C. mayor, Williams announced his accomplishments:
“Five years ago, the District was an economic desert,” he said. “Today, everywhere you look you see cranes cutting through our skyline. Since I became mayor, we have brought $27 billion in real estate investment and development across our city. We are currently building — or planning to build — 154 retail projects, 171 office projects, nearly 7,000 hotel rooms and more than 32,000 residential units, for current renters and new residents alike.”
And that was just the beginning.
There would be more announcements about money allocated for crime fighting, job training, education and affordable housing. But the primary mission seemingly was to keep those investment dollars flowing. And attract 100,000 new residents to the city.
After just two years in office, Williams had made the District the top city in the world for foreign real estate investments — followed by London, Paris, New York and Milan.
“The real estate wave, when I came, there wasn’t a real estate wave — and we got the wave going,” he said.
But there was a flip side: That wave was not lifting all boats, but battering the heck out of the poor.
A 2015 analysis of census data by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that the number of apartments with rents less than $800 per month — a number that represents 40 percent of monthly income for a family of four living at the poverty line — decreased by 42 percent between 2002 and 2013. That’s a decline of more than 24,000 units.
This year Georgetown University issued a report, “The State of African Americans in DC: Trends in Employment & Workforce Development,” that concluded many black people have been locked out of economic opportunity in the new Washington.
“It’s a failure of the school system, but it’s also a failure of the city and others to create opportunities where people can be trained for any number of jobs in the service industries, hospitality, and so forth,” said Maurice Jackson, a history professor at Georgetown and author of the study.
Making matters worse, a study by the Urban Institute, "The Color of Wealth in the Nation's Capital," found that white households in the Washington region have a net worth that is 81 times greater than black households. In the city itself, the wealth and income gap between blacks and whites is among the highest of any city in the nation.
Williams, the city’s last two-term mayor, remains optimistic. “A city with diverse populations, with diverse incomes and occupations works better than one that is mostly rich or mostly poor,” he said. “Social research shows that children who grow up in mixed-income communities do better in school. At the council, we’re trying to promote policies that increase the public good in an economically sustainable way.”
But was this effort a day late and a dollar short?
“I’d say it’s urgent, but not too late,” he said.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.