H.R. Crawford, a former D.C. Council member who had a long and complex legacy as a real estate developer and property manager in Washington, died Feb. 10 at a hospital in Washington. He was 78.
Kelvin Robinson, a family spokesman, confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.
Mr. Crawford was one of Washington’s most prominent black leaders in real estate management when, in 1973, he joined the Department of Housing and Urban Development as assistant secretary for housing management. The post made him one of the highest-ranking African American officials in the federal agency and propelled him to national attention, including an appearance on the cover of Jet magazine.
Although ultimately fired from the HUD position, he remained active in housing issues throughout his tenure on the D.C. Council representing Ward 7, which encompasses the far-eastern edge of the District, from 1980 to 1992.
Mr. Crawford stood out on the council because, unlike the many other members who had risen through the ranks of civic activists, he had been primarily a businessman. Arrington Dixon, who chaired the D.C. Council during part of Mr. Crawford’s time there, described his former colleague as a skilled lawmaker.
“He had the ear of whoever he wanted because he had a history in the community and was always in play — and not always with an agenda, other than to keep things moving forward,” Dixon said.
Mr. Crawford became widely known in the District for his management and redevelopment of public housing complexes. Early in his career, he won praise for renting units to tenants with poor credit histories and without regular employment. He helped them establish households, taught them how to operate common home appliances and reportedly maintained discipline among his renters by carrying a gun.
His redevelopment work, often involving the demolition of blighted housing buildings and the construction of new units in their place, sometimes was billed as an effort to turn tenants into homeowners. While Mr. Crawford’s projects did prove an economic boon to the city, they also had the effect of pushing many low-income renters out of their longtime homes.
“Look, we made too many mistakes by crowding people into the ghetto. Now, this town is booming,” he told The Washington Post in 2004. “You can’t cluster and stigmatize people anymore. And this black man has the same right to develop as any white developer. This city is exploding, and sites like this can’t just be low-income anymore.”
On Mr. Crawford’s checkered history in real estate, Dixon said he had known people who had worked for Mr. Crawford and lived in his apartments.
“I’ve seen his efforts in housing from a number of perspectives,” Dixon said. “He was successful in that he took on some tough tasks, he did some well and he made money on it. That’s not how I always measure success, but I guess that’s proof of something.”
Mr. Crawford drew particular notice for the construction of Walter E. Washington Estates in Southeast in 2003, a project in which he was accused of misusing federal dollars.
“Have I done everything right? Probably not,” he told The Post in 2008. “But I have done the best I could managing some of the toughest developments in lower-income communities, the work that very few wanted to do.”
Mr. Crawford was credited with opening the Southeast Veterans Service Center and Chesapeake House, also in Southeast, which provides transitional housing for veterans.
Robinson, who served as chief of staff to former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, said that in recent years, Mr. Crawford had trimmed his real estate holdings and worked primarily on ensuring the success of the facilities, now run by his son, Gregory Crawford.
Hazel Reid Crawford was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Jan. 18, 1939, and moved to Washington in his youth. His father worked for the federal government and managed the boardinghouse where the family resided, and his mother was a domestic.
President Richard M. Nixon named Mr. Crawford to HUD, where he advocated tearing down and then rebuilding the nation’s most run-down public housing communities.
Mr. Crawford already had announced his plan to resign when President Gerald R. Ford fired him in 1976 for soliciting future contracting jobs with recipients of HUD funding. A Justice Department investigation was closed, and Mr. Crawford faced no legal charges.
He was defeated in his bid for a fourth term on the council, losing to Kevin P. Chavous in the 1992 Democratic primary.
Mr. Crawford was active in Washington’s black Catholic institutions and was a member of the Knights of Columbus.
Survivors include his wife, the former Eleanora Braxton of Washington; five children, Leslie Taylor, Hazel Andrew “Guy” Crawford, Gregory Crawford and Lynn Crawford, all of Washington, and George Crawford of Upper Marlboro, Md.; and 21 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mr. Crawford was a past chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He also was a former board member of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, a leading advocacy organization for community efforts east of the Anacostia River.
“H.R. was an extremely colorful individual,” said Philip Pannell, the group’s executive director. “He had no hesitations in letting you know what his opinions were about situations or people.”
But Pannell said Crawford did keep one fact to himself. “I bet a lot of people will finally learn from his obituary what H.R. stands for,” Pannell said. “You don’t find many men named Hazel — that’s really old-school.
“If you asked most people, they would probably say H.R. stood for Hell Raiser,” he said.
Read more Washington Post obituaries