Most people agree the District is on the rise, with its booming hospitality industry, hot luxury condo market and budding retail scene. But beneath all that glitter and the ringing sound of cash registers, the city faces serious challenges that if left unattended could destroy its success and imperil its future, like termites.
The problems aren’t new. The shortage of affordable housing has been an issue for years, for example. Some progress has been made, but with the impending expiration of many federal protective covenants, it’s likely the stock will decline; even as a chorus of elected officials has pledged more money, there isn’t any viable action plan for turning things around.
I have highlighted in recent weeks how the affordable housing squeeze affects poor and working-class residents. But young professionals haven’t been spared. If rents or home prices continue to escalate, they, too, will be priced out of the market, bruising the District’s vitality while slicing into its revenue base.
Steep cost-of-living increases have contributed to the rise in family homelessness. It doesn’t help that developers seem to have a growing fascination with micro-units. Those teeny-tiny apartments are designed for millennials who spend fewer hours at home. The District’s public schools — charter and traditional — remain mediocre at best, as evidenced by recent student test scores. The shortage of high-quality schools has helped drive higher-earning families to the suburbs.
Amazingly, the city has thrown a lot of money at those afflictions without realizing any significant or sustained improvements. In the recently approved $12.7 billion fiscal 2015 budget, for example, as much as $6.6 billion has been allocated for human services and education alone. The council may have approved broad tax relief for 2015, but if costs in those areas aren’t contained, they could eat up any projected surplus, preventing implementation of the tax cuts.
So, what should be done? Which of the mayoral candidates — Democrat Muriel Bowser, Libertarian Bruce Majors, Statehood Green Faith, and independents Nestor Djonkam, Carol Schwartz and David Catania — has the management acumen and bold vision to move beyond tinkering to holistic and permanent solutions?
That’s the question that should be asked. Instead, some people have fixated on the candidates’ personalities — who smiles, who swears, who holds a grudge. Does any of that matter? Choosing a leader based on personality can be a fickle enterprise.
“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked,” noted management guru Peter Drucker. “Leadership is defined by results — not attributes.”
Majors doesn’t have much of a record. Besides, there is little chance that when the polls close on Nov. 4, the Libertarian or any of the other also-rans would have made it to the sixth floor of the John A. Wilson Building.
Schwartz is a former D.C. Council member who during her tenure was at the vanguard of government ethics reform, providing protection for workers and demands for improvements in public education. But she has made four unsuccessful attempts to snag the title of mayor. Is the fifth time a charm?
For most people, the mayoral battle is between Council members Bowser (Ward 4) and Catania (At Large). Bowser has promoted her work on ethics reform, including the creation of the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, but her record has been sullied somewhat by the recent Park Southern Apartments scandal involving two of her political supporters. She has held up her legislation providing free rides on the bus and subway for D.C. schoolchildren, the effort to protect homeowners against foreclosures, passage of the tenants bill of rights and the nonbinding “Alice Deal for all” resolution advocating the replication of the Ward 3 middle school model throughout the District, regardless of desirability or feasibility.
Catania has publicized his work while chairman of the council’s Health Committee to reduce the number of new HIV cases and AIDS-related deaths in the city and to expand mental health coverage for children, among other things. While on the council, he helped push through the 1999 Tax Parity Act, which was one of the city’s first major tax cuts. As the current head of the Education Committee, he is credited with reviving the reform movement that seemed stagnant for three years. He has introduced significant legislation to end social promotions, expand resources for schools with a preponderance of at-risk or low-income students and enhance services to special-needs children.
That rear-view mirror stuff is useful for assessing a candidate. But let’s not fool ourselves: It is no plan to handle the termites. Equally important, a record shouldn’t be confused with vision.